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Analysis & Opinion
22.01.09 Obama’s Feelings For Russia
By Sergei Balashov

The new U.S. President Barack Obama has finally been sworn into office, but whether his approach to handling the controversial legacy of the Republican administration will prove a success is still anyone’s guess. His stance on Russia remains rather ambivalent, but it appears that, whether they like it or not, Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama will have no choice but to cooperate.

It is still difficult to predict what the U.S.-Russian relations will be like following the changes in Washington. The message sent out during the president’s inauguration and the confirmation hearings in the Senate was mixed. The new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the time to throw support behind Georgia and Ukraine, while disagreeing with Russia’s position on some of the burning issues in the bilateral relations. Her comments, however, have been rather mild.

While barely mentioning Russia in his inauguration speech, Obama made it clear that he looks to get America back in the position of the global leader, and that America remains the world’s most influential nation. This sentiment was met with a cool response in Russia, where the political leadership has stated on numerous occasions that a unipolar world does not work and a different path has to be taken.

Signals coming from the Kremlin have been mixed as well. The veneer of skepticism on the Russian side has been complimented with hopes for better relations, amid challenges that the president-elect will have to resolve, such as the issue with the anti-missile defense system in Europe.

Deciphering all of these intricate messages has been a thankless task. Speculation peaked after the inauguration. Commenting on the speeches by Obama and his key foreign policy advisers, the Deputy Director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Viktor Kremenyuk said that a change in the U.S. policy toward former Soviet countries was imminent. Taking a closer look at the facts and issues that will top both states’ cooperation agenda in the next few years makes it seem that not only will the two countries cooperate, but they don’t have much of a choice.
Arms control will be one of the top priorities for the Obama administration, which makes the extension of the START I treaty or signing a new deal to replace it into a priority. Agreements on new regulations dealing with nuclear arms control, calling for a limitation of the nuclear arsenal to 1700-2200 warheads, will be needed for the Strategic Offensive Reductions treaty to be implemented; otherwise the treaty will expire in 2012. “This will only be possible if a compromise is reached on anti-missile defense. I have a hunch that the agreement with Poland will be largely delayed. Obama will not want to make a U-turn and reject it completely, but will launch an extended review of this program, and they’ve already decided on changing the anti-missile defense testing system,” said the Director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies Sergei Rogov.

NATO’s expansion, which has been championed by the George Bush administration and strongly protested against by both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, could also be among the concessions that president Obama agrees to make. Rogov, who recently returned from Washington, got the impression that the chances of Ukraine and Georgia receiving an invite to join NATO this spring are virtually nonexistent. “There is many an unpredictable thing about Obama, but the one thing that is clearly predictable is that he will not want to start a Cold War with Russia,” said Rogov.

Russia is also one of the world’s largest producers of energy, while the United States is the biggest consumer, which should play a certain role in their coming together. On top of that, Russia and the United States are both interested in keeping the U.S. dollar as the prime reserve currency. “Our strategies are different, but we have common tactical goals, so Russia and the United States will be doomed to an improvement in bilateral relations after Obama’s taking office,” said the General Director of the Center for Political Information Alexei Mukhin.

Such points of contention as human rights violations and a lack of political freedoms that exist in Russia and draw strong criticism might get drowned in issues of immediate importance that are going to have to be addressed through concessions and compromises. “I think that pragmatic cooperation on arms control will take center stage,” said Rogov.

There have already been some positive signs of what’s to come. This week, the Chief of the U.S. Central Command Gen. David Petraeus claimed that the United States had reached a deal with Russian and Central Asian countries to provide supply routes for American forces in Afghanistan, allowing them to shun the troubled route through Pakistan.

Obama will be visiting Russia in April, and every sign points to him doing a much better job winning the trust of the Russian public, which is still shaking off its discontent with the previous administration. The starting grounds seem to be good. The Voice of America radio station reported that Obama is viewed positively by the majority of Russians. About 70 percent were following the U.S. elections last year. This demand was fulfilled by thorough pre and post election coverage on national television.

It would be fair to say that Obama will also face a certain degree of difficulty. He’s going to have to figure out how to deal with the slightly-modified Russian political leadership. Medvedev, who was deemed the weaker heir to Putin compared to then-First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, is now emerging as a global political figure in his own right, with a defined style which is hardly more relaxed than that of Putin. “Medvedev may seem softer than Putin in his conduct, but he is actually sterner, he’s a politician of the Eastern type. He likes to establish control through a soft smothering technique that can be fatal to his opponents. Just look at Georgia for an example,” said Mukhin.
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