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Senior U.S. Delegations Hope To 'Reset' U.S.-Russia Relations

  • Robert Coalson

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a visit to Moscow on March 19.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a visit to Moscow on March 19.

Several high-level delegations of former U.S. officials have been in Moscow for meetings this month aimed at rejuvenating U.S.-Russian relations ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's first meeting with his Russian counterpart in London on April 1.

The so-called "wise men" are urging a pragmatic approach to relations that emphasizes shared interests such as preventing nuclear proliferation, reaching a new strategic arms agreement, and combating terrorism.

However, there are concerns among some of Russia's neighbors that a new pragmatism will curtail their ambitions to integrate with the West.

James Baker, who was U.S. secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush and is among the high-profile American statesmen touring Moscow this week, emphasized common interests when speaking to Reuters on March 19.

"It's important that U.S.-Russian relations get back on track, if you will, because we have so many interests that converge," Baker said. "Yes, we have some differences. We'll have to manage those differences. But in many, many areas the interests of Russia and the United States converge."

"It's very much in the interests of both countries to have the best possible bilateral relationship they can," Baker continued. "And it's also, frankly, in the interests of the world that these two countries with 95 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world have the best possible relationship they can."

Mutual Interests

In recent days, the meetings convening in Moscow included former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Republican U.S. Senator Sam Nunn.

The Russian side is represented by former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and former Chief of the General Staff Yury Baluyevsky.

Medvedev met earlier this month with another senior delegation, headed by former Democratic Senator Gary Hart, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. That group was in town to present its own 30-page report of recommendations for improving relations.

The Hart-Hagel commission report urged a focus on shared interests, including dealing with Iran's nuclear program, strengthening the international nonproliferation regime, stabilizing Afghanistan, and reducing strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

It also urged reducing bilateral tensions by accepting "that neither Ukraine nor Georgia is ready for NATO membership" and taking "a new look at missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic."

Medvedev met with commission members on March 10 and told them he is encouraged by the signals coming out of Washington.

"Unfortunately, our relations have degraded significantly over the past several years. We are saddened by this fact," Medvedev said. "We believe we have every opportunity to open a new page in Russian-U.S. relations. The signals that we're receiving today from the United States -- I mean the signals I'm receiving from President Obama -- seem entirely positive to me."

It remains unknown how influential such recommendations will be within the Obama administration, although Hagel is a close foreign-policy adviser to the new president and was reportedly a candidate to become secretary of state.

At a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on March 6, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized a similar agenda, especially the need for a new strategic-arms agreement, as the START 1 treaty expires at the end of this year.

"We intend to have an agreement by the end of the year. This is of the highest priority to our governments," Clinton said. "I believe we will be instructed by both of our presidents to make sure we do have an agreement, and we're going to get to work immediately."

Bulking Up

Just 10 days later, though, Medvedev announced a major upgrading of Russia's strategic forces, citing the threat from NATO as its justification. "The threats of local conflicts and international terrorism are still present," Medvedev said. "NATO's attempts to expand its military infrastructure near our country's borders continue. All this requires a qualitative modernization of our armed forces, giving them a new, modern shape."

It is possible this announcement is intended primarily as posturing before the opening of new strategic-arms talks.

The apparently warming relations between Washington and Moscow have raised concerns, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia.

The Hart-Hagel report argues that Russia has "legitimate interests" in "the region bridging Europe, and the Middle East." It concedes that "the United States should avoid zero-sum competition for influence there. Such competition is bound to damage American interests, especially because Russia is located in the region and the United States is not. As a result, attempts to pull countries away from Russia or to block legal Russian activities are unlikely to succeed."

It adds that U.S. interests "are not identical to those of Russia's neighbors and [Washington must] avoid becoming their instrument in dealing with Russia."

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the new U.S. position is a setback for Georgian ambitions to integrate with the West.

"I think to a certain extent Russia has bullied both us and NATO and everybody else -- including some who didn't expect they would be intimidated," Rondeli said.

"By doing that, [Russia] has sidetracked the issue [of Georgian NATO membership], but that does not mean we have to give it up."

Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, who has been harshly critical of the Russian government under Vladimir Putin and Medvedev, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he believes U.S. expectations for greater cooperation with Russia will be "disappointed."

"There is another serious factor: Russian domestic politics," he said. "You see, considering there is a deep economic crisis and growing social tension, the Putin regime cannot allow itself the luxury of giving up such a remarkable enemy as the United States."
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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