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A New Framework For Better U.S.-Russia Relations

Is President Bush (center) surrounded by Russia-hawks?
Is President Bush (center) surrounded by Russia-hawks?
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has much work ahead of him if he seeks a better dialogue with Russia. The dominant thinking in Washington, the power of anti-Russian interests groups, and the existing system of decision-making do not favor an improvement of relations with Russia.

The Washington "groupthink" toward Russia continues to reflect a desire by many within the U.S. political class to make critical international decisions without considering Russia's concerns. Russia remains of interest only to the degree it can help to pressure anti-American countries, like Iran and Syria, to comply with U.S. demands.

Russia is viewed as unpredictable, potentially dangerous, and prone to bullying its neighbors. Suffice it to recall the White House's initial reaction to the recent crisis in the South Caucasus, with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice comparing Russia's role with the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Vice President Dick Cheney vowing to punish Russia for its "aggression."

Neither one laid any blame on Georgia for its use of force against South Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers. Even though it was Georgia that attacked South Ossetia on August 7-8, the first instincts of a number of prominent media and politicians in the United States were to highlight the negative role of Russia and downplay Georgia's responsibility for the crisis.

Washington is also overpopulated with influential groups with anti-Russian agendas. Some of them lobby for military infrastructure in Russia's backyard; others are nostalgic for the years of controlling strategic portions of Russia's economy. But all are in agreement that the current Russia is a rising threat and must be disciplined before it's too late.

Under the Bush administration, these groups have made important accomplishments in terms of isolating Russia from the West. At a time of important changes in relations with Russia, they have pushed the United States toward an arrogant self-perception as the world's moral standard. They have imposed a narrative of purported Kremlin neo-imperialism and the dismantling of democracy in Russia.

Stacking The Deck

As a result, the policy establishment has grown more polarized with some moderates, like Special Assistant to the President Thomas Graham, resigning and others, like Rice, migrating to the Russia-hawks camp.

A pro-Russia lobby, on the other hand, is conspicuously absent from U.S. politics. Despite the fact that there are over a million Russians in the United States, almost nobody is there to promote more objective coverage of Russia in the U.S. media.

Small advocacy organizations, like the Congress of Russian-Americans, can hardly make any difference: They have limited funds and unpaid activists, which cannot be compared, for instance, with the Jewish lobby office in Washington, which has 450 full-time employees. This makes Russia extremely vulnerable to criticisms from those who are eager to reconstruct and exploit the image of an enemy.

The decision-making process too has been stacked against making well-informed judgments on Russia. Under Bush, the process has been highly secretive and divisive with Vice President Cheney having his own policy line, his own circle of advisers, and even his own group of contacts in Russia. With this process, as well as Bush's lack of focus and competence, Bush's good personal relations with Vladimir Putin were insufficient to play a decisive role.

A better process would include institutions that won't allow the president to take his eyes off Russia or be influenced by special interests. The prioritization of nuclear-security issues and the establishment of a permanent U.S.-Russia advisory council made up of public figures known for their expertise and independent judgment could ensure against a return to policies that have produced only confrontation.

People of the stature of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, on the U.S. side, and of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, in Russia, would provide more stability to the bilateral relationship and curtail the influence of groups with narrow policy agendas.

Whatever one may hear about a resurgent Russia as a challenge for the new Obama administration, the Kremlin remains focused on preserving domestic economic and political stability. Russia's insistence on respecting its security interests is not much more than a response to unilateral U.S. policies since the end of the Cold War.

Recent statements from the Kremlin indicate a desire to reengage the United States in mutually beneficial ways. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signaled that beyond the "red lines" on Georgia, NATO expansion, and the proposed missile-defense system in Europe, Russia is open for dialogue and negotiation. The current hard economic times that are affecting both countries may yet bring them closer to one another, as the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, once did.

Andrei Tsygankov is professor of international relations and political science at San Francisco State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL