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Competing Visions Of The 'Reset Button'

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow -- a partnership based on mutual interests without really embracing each other as strategic partners?
U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow -- a partnership based on mutual interests without really embracing each other as strategic partners?
It is fair to say most observers of U.S. President Barack Obama's recent visit to Russia have concluded the summit was a net positive for Russia and the United States.

Both countries acknowledged the deterioration in relations over the past few years must be ended and that a new approach needs to be embraced. This approach has been dubbed "hitting the reset button," but while this is a catchy and memorable phrase, it means very different things to Moscow and Washington.

Making progress on a new nuclear arms agreement to replace the soon-to-lapse Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was touted as the summit's crowning achievement. While this was expected, it gave both Russia and the United States a public-relations opportunity to demonstrate that this bilateral relationship can produce tangible and mutually beneficial outcomes. Obama is a noted orator, but very soon his inspiring rhetoric needs to be translated into policy achievements: a START II treaty with Russia can be part of that process.

A wide array of other issues was discussed with varying degrees of agreement. Washington complied with Moscow's insistence that the reduction of offensive nuclear weapons needs to be tied to limitations on missile-defense systems. With this linkage accepted, it would seem the way is paved for addressing Russia's objections to U.S. proposals to place missile-defense systems in Central Europe.

There was also agreement on Afghanistan -- Russia will now permit the United States to transit lethal military ordinance via its airspace. There were also outright disagreements. Moscow and Washington found no common ground on the topic of Georgia. This was also expected, and was not allowed to overshadow the summit in any meaningful way.

This description of how the Moscow summit went is conventional and one-dimensional. It underplays or does not recognize the meaning of the summit and the problems -- even dangers -- ahead for both countries if attitudes and behaviors don't change on both sides. The first step to resetting is to accept how the Russians and Americans interpret what "resetting" of relations means.

Let Bygones Be Bygones

Many in Washington see this process as: "Let's turn the page; let's literally start again." This is a typical American approach, something akin to saying mistakes were made in the past by both sides and saying sorry in the present doesn't move the relationship forward. Essentially, many in the new administration take the position that it is not responsible for what Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush did when it comes to Russia. Washington's position is let the past be the past and let's work in the present for a better future.

Fair enough, but that is not how the Russians see things. For the Russians, separating the past from the present is not so simple. The past is what got all of us into this problematic present.

For Russia's political elite and people, the recent past is very much part of today's political reality: NATO expansion, the illegal recognition under international law of Kosovo's independence, the moral and financial support of "colored revolutions" in the post-Soviet space (and the resulting instability in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan), the unilateral walking away from the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, the backing of oil and gas pipelines challenging Russia's global energy-security policies, and the coddling of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are on the short list of grievances cited. In sum, the Russians see an unrelenting siege against them from the West -- particularly the United States -- on multiple fronts.

Bridging this gap in approach requires enormous political will on both sides. The post-Cold War environment is just about 20 years old, and both the Russians and Americans must assess their future relationship with historical facts in mind.

Admittedly, Obama has already started this process. During his recent address in Cairo, he recognized that some past U.S. foreign policies have been counterproductive to U.S. security interests in the greater Middle East. He needs to do the same when it comes to Russia (and many other parts for world, I might add).

Embracing Mutual Interests

However, admitting mistakes should not be seen as being compelled to make concessions. Nonetheless, there is little if any evidence that Obama intends to continue Bush-era policies toward Russia and the post-Soviet space. Moscow should consider this seriously. This is Obama's first step toward clearing the air, as it were.

Russia, too, should clear the air. Damning a past that cannot be undone is a useless endeavor. It is hardly possible that NATO will turn around and "uninvite" its newest members. Nor is it likely the United States and other countries will withdraw their recognition of Kosovo. Obama cannot simply enact an "historic retreat" to please the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, Russia can and should start putting aside its very real sense of built-up resentment toward the United States. Both countries have made it clear they intend to work closely on a number of burning international issues -- Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, nonproliferation, the Middle East -- and this engagement should serve to bolster a foundation of trust between the two countries. Trust is where every relationship starts.

Now it is left to historians to assess what I call Russia's passage through the post-Soviet purgatory. But this must not become an impediment for Russia when dealing with the United States on crucial global-security issues. Russia and the United States can have a partnership based on mutual interests without really embracing each other as strategic partners.

We can lament the past, but we can create a new and different future. Russia and the Russians want a clear recognition of this from the United States. Obama's Washington appears to be moving in that direction when facing the world. Russia isn't expecting Obama to apologize for the past; it only wants respect and the recognition that Russia too will define its security interests. If this happens, it will be difficult and even nonsensical for the Kremlin to ignore new overtures from Washington.

Peter Lavelle is Russia Today television's political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL or Russia Today