The promise by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to
«press the reset button» in its relations with Russia holds promise
for rapid progress in the near future as well as for dealing with
serious problems down the line.
By the end of President George W. Bush’s last term in office,
the level of mutual trust between Russia and the United States had
fallen to a 30-year low. The meaningful communication needed for at
least a modicum of mutual understanding had all but stopped between
Moscow and Washington. The barbs they traded over the
Russia-Georgia war in August demonstrated that a continuation of
this state of affairs had the potential to escalate the verbal
volley with Washington into an armed conflict.
Washington’s restrained reaction to the announcement that
Bishkek would cancel the lease on the U.S. military base in Manas
was a sign that the Obama administration was taking a different
approach to foreign policy. It isn’t difficult to imagine what an
uproar the same decision would have elicited from former U.S.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. We now hear far fewer of the
unequivocal pronouncements about democracy and human rights that
characterized the former occupants of the White House and State
Department. It would seem that, in addition to pushing the «reset
button,» Obama has decided to turn down the volume as well.
Russia’s anti-U.S. rhetoric has also decreased. Whatever
residual criticisms we still hear are directed primarily at the
back of the outgoing administration. It is worth noting that from
the Kremlin’s point of view, Washington should take the first step
to improve relations because U.S. policies led relations to break
down in the first place. So far, Russia seems to be satisfied with
the quantity and quality of the signals that it is receiving from
the Obama administration.
The meeting in London has shown that both parties understand
that by starting discussions on issues where their interests either
overlap or are at least compatible, progress is more likely. That
is why, at the first stage, talks have begun on strategic nuclear
weapons and Afghanistan.
It is possible to reach a mutually acceptable decision on the
reduction of strategic armaments. Some level of reductions would be
advantageous for all concerned. First, it would give both sides the
opportunity to eliminate unnecessary surpluses. Second, it would
become the first success for Moscow and Washington in many years
and would exert a beneficial effect on the world as a whole. Last,
negotiations on strategic arms is the only area in which Russia
enjoys parity with the United States, and that is an important
psychological factor for Moscow.
It would also be entirely logical for the two countries to reach
an agreement on the transit of U.S. military supplies through
Russian territory into Afghanistan. Both sides agree in principle
on Afghanistan, and none of the leading world players — including
Iran — wants to see a return of Taliban rule there. At the same
time, such an agreement would not require any extra effort from
Russia. Nobody is asking Russia to send in its troops, and it might
even be advantageous for Moscow to play a supporting role. The
long-term situation with Afghanistan remains uncertain because the
goal of the coalition forces there is unclear. Obama’s directives
vary, but it seems that the current steps are a prelude to a large,
decisive withdrawal of coalition forces in the future. Russia will
face new problems with Afghanistan once the coalition leaves, but
that is a question for the future.
And that is the point where the easy part ends: The remaining
questions on the agenda are fraught with potential conflicts.
The question of joint protection against nuclear attack is very
delicate. It will be discussed last, and only if the level of trust
significantly improves. Resolving that issue should be a crowning
achievement, not a starting point, in the process of «resetting»
The situation regarding Iran is extremely complex. Moscow and
Washington have different understandings of the threat that Iran
poses and the nature of its ruling regime. Both the United States
and Israel suspect Tehran of being irrational and religiously
fanatical. Russia is less concerned about Iran’s bombs and missiles
and probably pays more attention to Tehran’s calculated efforts to
earn the status of a regional power. No matter what happens, Iran,
not the United States, will remain an important neighbor to Russia,
and for that reason, Moscow wants to seize the opportunity to
establish relations with Tehran that will pay dividends — in both
commercial and geopolitical terms.
But this is not the main problem. It is probably impossible to
halt Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy alone.
(Theoretically, it is possible to imagine a sharp turnabout in U.S.
policy along the lines of its reconciliation with China in the
early 1970s. But the likelihood of that is not great, because
theocratic regimes make much more difficult partners than do
communist regimes.) The United States considers a nuclear Iran to
be an existential threat, inasmuch as it would lead to a breakdown
in efforts to ensure the nonproliferation of weapons of mass
destruction. This means that Obama, even more than Bush, will be
forced to consider the military option as a means for containing
Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That would create a new situation with
unpredictable consequences for Russia.
Finally, there is almost no hope for compromise regarding the
former Soviet republics. Washington will never recognize that
territory as Russia’s rightful sphere of influence because it
contradicts the spirit of U.S. policy. At the same time, Moscow
will never step down from its claims over those territories. From
Moscow’s point of view, if Russia does not obtain special status
throughout the republics of the former Soviet Union, it will be
powerless to protect its vital security and economic interests as a
Even so, we can expect some improvement in U.S.-Russian
relations. Obama has shown far less interest than Bush in bringing
Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and in deploying elements of U.S.
missile defense batteries in Central Europe. These questions remain
on the agenda, but they have been bumped from the top of the list.
Washington is trying to «sell» that as a concession to Moscow and
as a deal for some period in order to clear the path in other
There is, however, a complicating factor — namely, the
asymmetry of their relationship. The United States is far more
important to Russia than the other way around. Here, the Obama
administration must be given credit for behaving tactfully and for
trying to emphasize Moscow’s importance in every possible way. But
an objective imbalance exists.
On the positive side, the new Russian and U.S. presidents give
the impression of being pragmatists trying to find a reasonable way
to cope with the burdensome heritage of the previous years. Their
predecessors were unable to manage it; too many high hopes turned
into deep disappointments, and personal relations took precedence
over relations between states. The first meeting between Barack
Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in London offers hope that now common
sense and cooler heads will prevail.