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Analysis & Opinion
15.10.09 Expectations Management
By Roland Oliphant

It was good to see Hillary Clinton in Moscow this week, if only because she missed out on her president’s supposedly groundbreaking visit in July of this year. But despite warm words on either side, the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations is struggling to make the transition from rhetoric to action.

“Our cooperation with the new American administration has reached a very high level,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told reporters following U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s day of talks on Tuesday.

Fine words. And in so far as words are indicative of the currents in inter-state relations, there appears to be little doubt that there has been a change for the better. But while presidents may happily heap praises on one another in the name of good relations, foreign ministers have the job of managing expectations.

Neither Clinton herself, nor her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, were able to match Medvedev in effusiveness, or put flesh on the bones of the Russian president’s claims of a “very high level” of cooperation. “We have much common ground on the issues discussed,” was the best Lavrov could say. Or, as Clinton herself put it in an interview with the Echo of Moscow radio station, “there is an atmosphere of goodwill and a positive sense that we can do things together that maybe in the past were not possible.”

That use of the word “sense” probably best describes the nature of the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations. What thaw there is was not manifested in any specific progress on the main issues, so much as the fact that they were being discussed at all.

For the Americans the most important of those issues was Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap plans to base elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic was widely billed (though not by Obama) as the first concrete step in the promised “reset” of relations with Russia. The Obama administration avoided any mention of Russia in its decision, but the hope seemed to be that the Russians would reciprocate with more cooperation on Iran.

Iran’s revelation of a previously undeclared nuclear processing plant at Qom, and Medvedev’s subsequent comments that “sanctions are sometimes necessary,” had raised those hopes. But Clinton was unable to turn that into a firm commitment. Lavrov instead reiterated the qualification of Medvedev’s remark, that sanctions only become inevitable “when all possible political and diplomatic methods are indeed exhausted.” “In the Iran situation, we are far from this,” added the foreign minister.

But the Americans would have been na?ve to expect anything else, first of all because the end of the missile defense plans was by no means a concession. “Simply put, America did not want to spend huge sums of money on a system that had not been proven to work,” said Alexander Konovalov, the president of the Institute for Strategic Assessment in Moscow. “It was a destabilizing plan, but it never posed a real military threat to Russia.”

“It was just as much in the U.S. interest as in the Russian interest – if not more so,” agreed Oksana Antonenko of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

That is, of course, precisely the spin the Obama administration put on the decision anyway, so it is hardly surprising that the Russian government does not feel obliged to return a favor just yet.

“Antagonizing Iran is too risky for Russia, both in economic and security terms,” said Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow. “The Kremlin is waiting for more substantial offers from the United States before it is ready for serious talk about its own concessions.”

The Americans have offered some. An article in the Kommersant daily earlier this week claimed that the Obama administration had promised to tone down criticism of Russia on human rights and democracy (in her interview to Echo of Moscow Clinton denied that, but many observers see such a shift in approach). “Obama has concluded, even as early as his election campaign, that lecturing Russia creates a bad atmosphere but doesn’t change anything. But that’s not specific to Russia,” said Antonenko.

But even that should not be seen as a “concession,” said Antonenko. “A policy based on making concessions to Russia and expecting something in return is probably bound to fail,” she said. The fact that no documents were signed during Clinton’s visit, and no joint-policy proposals were adopted or announced, should not be seen as a disappointment. “There may be a long-term process of confidence building,” said Antonenko. “And frankly, anyone who was expecting rapid progress in delusional.”

And although Clinton and Lavrov may have to manage expectations for now, the long process of confidence building is inevitable, said Konvalov. “We have too many common interests – in non-proliferation, in stabilizing Central Asia.” Sooner or later, could Russia and the United States be calling each other not “partners,” but “allies”? That’s probably too fine a word for now.
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