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Analysis & Opinion
23.01.09 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: What’s In Obama For The Kremlin
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Eugene Kolesnikov

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the next president of the United States on January 20, the Kremlin sent out all sorts of positive signals, indicating a strong interest in having a fresh start in the U.S.-Russian relations. Is Moscow correct in its positive reading of the signals sent by Obama and his people during their election campaign? Will Obama really reconsider the George Bush decisions that irritate Moscow the most – missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia? What is Russia trying to accomplish in rebuilding the relationship with the United States?

Last Friday in Germany Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke very enthusiastically about Moscow’s hope for the incoming Obama administration. Putin said that Moscow had been closely following the U.S. presidential campaign, and was hoping that president-elect Obama would implement the positive proposals that he had put forward during the campaign. Putin, who has never met Obama personally, described the incoming U.S. president as “an open and sincere man.”

He said that during Obama’s campaign, Moscow deciphered positive signals on missile defense: “We heard that it might not be that necessary after all,” and that the security of Ukraine and Georgia could be ensured through mechanisms “other than their membership in NATO.” Many promising things were said about plans for new strategic nuclear reductions and preventing a new arms race. Putin emphasized that Moscow was prepared to work together with the new U.S. administration on international issues that demand collective action, like nuclear non-proliferation.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also lavished praise on the incoming Obama administration, saying in a televised interview that he had almost no doubt that the new team in Washington would kill NATO expansion plans for Ukraine and Georgia (a fairly bold statement for a foreign minister), and that it was very likely that the Obama team would appraise the need for missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe negatively. Were that to happen, added Lavrov, there obviously would be no deployments of Russian medium-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.
It is clear that Moscow is quite tired of the impasse in U.S.-Russian relations that emerged by the end of the George Bush presidency. The Russian leadership is ready and willing to engage the new U.S. team on many issues, hoping to reemerge from the relative isolation that Russia has faced since the war with Georgia in August of 2008.

Moscow wants to demonstrate that it is not a spoiler, but rather a responsible international power that just wants some respect for its vital interests. The Kremlin hopes that the Obama administration, willing to start from a blank page, untainted by the Bush legacy in U.S.-Russian relations, will be more attuned to Russian concerns and will be more willing to accommodate them in exchange for tangible deliverables on issues that are of great importance to the United States.

But are these hopes and expectations justified? Is Moscow correct in its quite positive reading of the signals sent by Obama and his people during the campaign? Will Obama really reconsider the Bush decisions that irritate Moscow the most – missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia? Or is it a marker that the Kremlin should never have laid, since this would make it much more difficult for Obama to move away from Bush policies on these issues? What is Russia trying to accomplish in rebuilding the relationship with the United States? Would the United States benefit from a more productive relationship with Russia? What should we all expect from the first Barack Obama-Dmitry Medvedev meeting?

Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, the Netherlands:

America stands at a crossroads regarding its policy toward Russia, and Obama has to make a difficult choice that will determine the political dynamics in Eurasia and beyond. Obama's Clintonite foreign affairs team and such advisors as Zbigniew Brzezinski will want him to carry on with the Russia containment policies. The containment approach is based on the assessment prevalent in the U.S. establishment that America will be capable of dominating the world if China is allied, Europe is taken back into the fold by involvement in decision-making, and all sorts of “smart power” improvements are implemented elsewhere.

This was a straightforward case just eight years ago, but not anymore. Russia reemerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union as a strong Eurasian power with a global reach. Russia is quite stable politically, despite all attempts at destabilizing it through various political proxies. It also looks set to weather the unfolding economic disaster, for it is now fully intertwined with the world economy. When the U.S. and European economies recover, the Russian economy, and thus its power, will rise as well. If the West does not recover, everyone will be living in a very different world anyway.

New Russia can make and will make things very difficult for the United States if the latter chooses to ignore its interests. The Russian geopolitical toolkit includes such items as its dominant position as an energy supplier to Europe, its potential role as an arms supplier to Iran and Syria, its influence in countries that can provide logistical corridors to Afghanistan, and so on. The costs of ignoring Russia have increased exponentially.

This is why quite a sizeable number of influential people in America and Europe have been pondering genuine rapprochement with Russia. In their view, an alliance of the North is more beneficial than a United States-China duopoly with Russia as an adversary. The Russian leadership believes in this as well, and is doing everything to persuade the West to effect this option.

However, allying with Russia would be a fundamental, tectonic shift in American policy that would have to go as far as reshaping the U.S. identity as a superpower. I therefore do not believe such a tectonic shift can happen. It is much more likely that Obama's team will make small compromises, such as putting the missile defense and NATO expansion on the back burner while resisting Russia's rise and its influence in the former Soviet Union through a number of other, less aggressive means. It appears, unfortunately, that the Russia-United States policy limbo will persevere despite the change in the American administration.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC :

Conciliatory words from Moscow cannot offset its arrogant and counterproductive policies of late. If U.S. President Barak Obama can avoid succumbing to "summititis" and indeed follows the collective advice of his diverse national security team, he will not act like an eager puppy wagging its tail in response to mere "happy talk" emanating from the Russian leadership.

The Kremlin (and/or the Russian White House) has unintentionally handed to Obama a priceless gift. By playing "hardball" with Georgia and Ukraine and creating a difficult time for the countries that have come to rely on Gazprom exports to keep their populations warm in winter, Russian foreign policy has further unified the American public in solidifying its cautious attitude toward the Russian objectives.

There appears again to be a bipartisan view forming in the United States that the present Russian government cannot be trusted in the foreign policy realm. Russia's failure to observe its citizens’ civil and human rights has not gone unnoticed at home or abroad -- undoubtedly, throughout the world, domestic and foreign policy are inseparable.

Perhaps if Russian law enforcement authorities conduct the investigation and prosecute the murderer of the Russian lawyer Stanislav Markelov in a professional and depoliticized manner, punishing not only the actual assassin, but also all those individuals who ordered and participated in planning the killing, so that there is no suspicion of a cover-up, such conduct becoming the norm rather than an "exception" in Russia, would send a positive "signal" to president Obama. It will be a welcome sign for both the foreign and the domestic observers of contemporary events, showing that a real change in the character and professionalism of the Russian government is possible.

When apolitical people in Vladivostok and other Russian cities appear willing to demonstrate against increased import tariffs on foreign-made cars and get dragged away to jail, it makes an impression that is difficult to forget, and makes it hard for the Obama administration to accommodate the Kremlin's desires (even if it were inclined to do so), particularly after Russia agreed with the other G20 countries not to accrue trade barriers. Perhaps an apology to the Russian citizens exercising their freedom of speech along with the payment of compensation and punishment of those who used excessive force would get noticed as well. The failure of the Russian government to do so almost certainly will become another case that will come before the Council of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Undoubtedly, both sides would benefit from a lower temperature in their relationship, but Moscow may have misplaced hopes that Obama will give it what it wants. No U.S. president is likely to make such unilateral concessions to a Moscow that has made its aggressive behavior in Eurasia so transparent, and has so recklessly added to the mistrust of its potential partners. In all the talks I have heard or read from authoritative Russian analysts or spokesmen, there is the idea that satisfactory ties with America can only be held if Washington concedes all along the line, and that this somehow will show respect for Russia.

Unfortunately there is no proof that Moscow will cooperate on Iran, quite the opposite. With regard to Israel and the Palestine Arabs, the fighting in Gaza showed that in fact, Moscow remains very much a marginal player, whose role has been that of a spoiler, considering its arms sales to Iran and Syria—weapons that then go to Hezbollah and Hamas. In fact, there is no proof that Russian truculence will cease if Washington makes these unilateral concessions, or that Russia has anything other than support for the war in Afghanistan which is ultimately even more in its interest.

It may well be the case that Russian policymakers, though they will not admit it, have begun to feel the pressure of their domestic economic crisis. But the posture displayed toward Ukraine in the recent gas war, the truncation of Georgian sovereignty, the threats to NATO allies that have no basis in fact, and the slide of the Russian regime into policies that evoke Fascism suggest an expectation of a unilateral surrender on issues like missile defense and NATO enlargement. START negotiations do provide a basis for compromise, but it is unlikely that those alone, even with Afghanistan, can bear the burden of being the main pillar in a genuine detente.

Thus a real test of Moscow's intentions will come with regard to Iran, which is moving as fast as it can toward nuclear weapons, and whose role in providing support for terrorism across the globe is well-documented. If Russia really wants to obviate the need for missile defenses in Europe, then it would be well advised to join in with the direct engagement Obama will undertake vis-?-vis Iran, to persuade Tehran that either it forego nuclear weapons or that it risks being totally isolated without Russian support, upon which it now counts. As Obama has indicated, if there is no Iranian threat then it will not be necessary to introduce the missiles into Eastern Europe. But so far there is no sign of genuine reciprocity on Moscow's part, and no understanding that it too must make concessions if it wants to have genuine partnership with the United States.
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