Accessibility links

Breaking News

Obama And The Russians Need Each Other To Solve Key Problems

Obama has suggested he'll seek to revive superpower summits on arms reductions that were a mainstay during the Cold War but out of fashion under the Bush administration.
Obama has suggested he'll seek to revive superpower summits on arms reductions that were a mainstay during the Cold War but out of fashion under the Bush administration.
The day after Barack Obama's electoral victory last autumn, most world leaders were falling over themselves to congratulate the new U.S. leader. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev decided to send a very different kind of message.

Just minutes into Medvedev's state-of-the-nation address before a joint session of parliament on November 5, the Kremlin leader announced that Russia planned to deploy short-range missiles in its western enclave of Kaliningrad. The Russian leader said the plan was meant to "neutralize" Washington's plans to build a missile-defense system in Central Europe.

Medvedev did not mention the U.S. president-elect by name in the speech or publicly congratulate him on his victory. The move was widely seen as both a snub and an attempt by Moscow to test Obama. It also appeared to portend that the chilly confrontational tone that had characterized U.S.-Russian relations in recent years would continue and perhaps even intensify.

But with Obama preparing to take the oath of office on January 20 -- and with his nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, facing senators in confirmation hearings this week -- analysts say it is more likely that both sides will try to reverse recent talk of an emerging new Cold War.

The reason, analysts say, is the deepening economic crisis. Plummeting oil prices have already scaled back the Kremlin's bullish attitudes on the world stage, just as expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have pushed other issues off the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. The year ahead will see mounting economic uncertainty limiting even further what both Moscow and Washington will be able to accomplish abroad.

"I think is not realistic for Russia to pursue the wide-ranging goals it aspired to in 2007 and in the first half of 2008, when it seemed that there were enough resources for everything." says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based journal "Russia in Global Affairs." "Now it is necessary to economize and set priorities. This also applies to the administration of Barack Obama."

Charges And Countercharges

Russia has been bitterly critical of U.S. plans to deploy components of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and of Washington's efforts to bring former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine into the NATO alliance.

The United States, for its part, has assailed Russia over using its energy wealth as a political weapon against its neighbors and for backsliding on democracy and civil liberties at home. Russia has also irked Washington with its overtures to authoritarian Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other Latin American leaders.

Relations between Moscow and Washington hit a post-Cold War low following Russia's invasion of Georgia in August.

Russian troops atop a tank in central Georgia on August 19
But despite their differences, Russia and the United States also need each other to solve key problems. Washington badly wants Moscow's cooperation in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions and in providing supply routes to assist NATO's mission of stabilizing Afghanistan. Russia, for its part, wants new arms-control agreements with the United States.

Lukyanov says many in the Russian elite remain a bit perplexed by Obama and don't know what to expect when the global phenomenon that has captured the imaginations of many in the world actually becomes the sitting U.S. president.

"I don't know what kind of tone we can expect from Obama. We still can't imagine what kind of president he will be. Obama is still more of a symbol than a president at this point. It is difficult to predict," Lukyanov says.

A Return To Summitry

In fact, Obama offered numerous clues throughout the long presidential campaign about what his Russia policy might look like.

Obama said he sought "cooperative engagement with the Russian government and friendship with the Russian people," but also expressed support for Georgia and Ukraine's NATO bids and said that Moscow must respect the sovereignty of its neighbors. Obama also said he supported missile defense, but wanted to be sure the system was technically viable before deploying it.

Such positions are unlikely to please the Kremlin. But one issue Obama pushed during the campaign that has piqued Moscow's interest is an intention to "seek real, verifiable reductions in all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons."

In a July foreign-policy speech in Washington, Obama suggested that he would seek to revive the kind of superpower summits on arms reductions that were a mainstay during the Cold War, but which have fallen out of fashion during the Bush administration.

"Instead of threatening to kick them out of the [Group of Eight], we need to work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material, to seek a global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons, and to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global," Obama said.

With its nuclear stockpiles aging, Russia has long been eager to revive arms-control negotiations with the United States. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Kremlin officials have said that Moscow is eager to negotiate a successor deal to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in December.

Steven Pifer, a former State Department official who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that an "arms-control dialogue" between Moscow and Washington tends to have "a more positive impact on the broader relationship" because it gives Russia a vested interest in keeping its relations with Washington on a positive footing.

"Having that bilateral negotiation going on is taken in Moscow as an acknowledgement that Russia is a superpower on par with the United States in terms of nuclear weapons," Pifer says. "That seems to be important in Russia. That's fine. We ought to use that as a tool. We can use that to generate progress on questions [that are important to the United States] and we ought to go for it."

Pifer and other analysts say Obama could use the cover of bilateral summits to talk about not just arms control, but about other issues that matter to Washington like human rights, democracy, Russia's relations with its neighbors, Iran's nuclear program, and Afghanistan.

It is a strategy former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, used effectively in the 1980s in their negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev.

Device For Manipulation

Not all Russia-watchers, however, favor such a strategy.

Satter says there's "no point in humoring" a leader like Putin (pictured).
"There's no point in humoring them," says David Satter, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of the book "Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State."

"They should understand that we're dealing with them on the basis of reality, on the basis of the real political situation, our real interests, and our real values," Satter adds. "Wasting time on empty gestures in order to give us the right to say things that we have the right to say anyway is only going to be interpreted by them as a potential device for manipulation."

In a recent article in "Forbes" magazine, Satter, a staunch critic of the Kremlin, warned Obama against treating any Russian leader "as a friend."

Russian and U.S. leaders have long touted their personal relationships. Richard Nixon indulged Leonid Brezhnev's appetite for cars by giving him a Lincoln Continental. Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin demonstrably called each other by their first names in public. And George W. Bush famously looked into Vladimir Putin's soul.

"The Russians like to give a Western leader the impression that he has a personal relationship," Satter says. "And then that Western leader becomes reluctant to jeopardize that personal relationship. As a result, the Russians have room for maneuver and manipulation. This doesn't work to our advantage, because it doesn't limit them in any way. But I'm not sure it will be as easy this time around."

In any event, it is unclear with whom Obama would seek to forge a personal relationship, Russia's nominal head of state, President Medvedev, or its de facto leader, Prime Minister Putin.

Unfinished Business

It will not be Obama alone who sets the tone for the new administration's Russia policy.

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton will be the public face of U.S. foreign policy, and she is expected to bring veterans from her husband's administration into the State Department.

On January 13, the opening day of her Senate confirmation hearing, Clinton said the Obama administration would "seek a future of cooperative engagement with the Russian government on matters of strategic importance, while standing strongly for American values and international norms."

Lukyanov says, however, there are concerns in Moscow that veterans of the Clinton administration -- which paid a great deal of attention to democratic reform in Russia in the 1990s, only to be frustrated by the rise of Putin's authoritarian rule -- will, "consciously or even unconsciously, look at Russia as unfinished business."

He adds that "a focus on democracy, on the internal situation in Russia, at the expense of general geopolitical interests" would not be welcomed by the Kremlin.

The Brookings Institution's Pifer says that it would be highly unlikely for Obama "to abandon traditional American support for democracy." But he adds that "with regards to Russia, there may be need to confront a reality that there is not a lot we can do to change the situation."

Analysts say the two main irritants in U.S.-Russian relations -- NATO expansion and missile defense -- are likely to be less contentious under Obama.

Although the president-elect has expressed support for Tbilisi and Kyiv in their NATO bids, firm resistance from European allies like Germany and France is likely to delay that issue at least for the short term. Many observers also say missile defense could easily become a bargaining chip to exact concessions from Russia on other issues.

One key concession Washington would like to win from Moscow is support on the UN Security Council to help curb Iran's nuclear program. Obama has said he would be willing to meet with Iran's leaders, but his bargaining position would be considerably strengthened if Russia supported tough sanctions in the event that Tehran refused to abandon its uranium-enrichment program.

"One of the reasons to improve Russian-American relations is because you would hope for a more helpful Russian position on Iran," Pifer says. "We want to give the Iranians a very stark choice that says: Here are the good things that will happen if you make the right decision and give up enrichment, and here are all the bad things that will happen if you don't. One of the failures in American and Russian approaches to Iran over the last five to six years is that the Russians haven't put as many sticks on the table as they could and the Americans haven't put out as many carrots as possible."

Analysts say a key question that will shape U.S.-Russian relations in the short run is how Moscow responds to the economic hardship that appears to be just around the corner. Will the Kremlin seek scapegoats abroad to distract attention from a mushrooming economic crisis? Or will they seek a peaceful international environment so they can turn inward and address economic problems at home?

"They have a choice. Does it drive them to say, '[The economic crisis] is all America, the Americans are doing this?' That would lead them to grab more tightly to this enemy image," Pifer says. "Or does it lead them to what I hope would be a better course? This would be realizing that they've got a lot of domestic problems and it would be easier to tackle these domestic problems if the international environment were easier. This would hopefully create a readiness on the part of the Russians to also look for a more positive relationship."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.