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Russia Cool On Obama, But Eager To Set New Ground Rules In U.S. Ties

Will a President Obama improve the relationship with Moscow?
Will a President Obama improve the relationship with Moscow?
(RFE/RL) -- The presidency of George W. Bush may have started with a soulful glance into the eyes of Vladimir Putin, but ties between Russia and the United States have deteriorated ever since.

Russia has grown rich and aggressive on energy wealth, even as U.S. power has been depleted by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the two countries have become open antagonists, divided by NATO expansion, Moscow's war in Georgia, and their mutual quest for command of the world stage.

One day after the historic election of Bush's successor -- 47-year-old Democrat Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected president -- the mood appears unchanged.

Dmitry Medvedev, whose first state-of-the-nation address as Russian president followed Obama's acceptance speech by mere hours, lashed out at Washington for spurring the global financial crisis and pursuing aggressive missile-defense plans in Europe.

It was up to Obama, Medvedev suggested coolly, to make a change for the better. "We do not have a problem with the American people," Medvedev said. "And we hope our partners in the new U.S. administration will make a choice in favor of comprehensive relations with Russia."

Medvedev is due to travel to Washington on November 15 for talks on the economic crisis. It's unclear whether he will meet the president-elect during his trip.

End To Unilateralism?

Repairing the U.S. relationship with Russia will be one of the major tasks facing Obama when he takes office in January 2009.

Perhaps the first challenge will be restoring the Russian public's interest in a U.S. partnership. The Kremlin has made no secret of its resentment of Washington, and recent polls indicate many Russians themselves were unmoved by the U.S. election fever that infected so many people around the globe.

Sergei Rogov, the director of the Institute for the USA and Canadian Studies in Moscow, believes Obama's victory marks an important new era in U.S. history -- and an end to what Russia has long seen as Washington's unipolarism.

"The two wars have exhausted the American Army, the American budget. The unilateral actions favored by the U.S. under the Bush administration simply aren't possible anymore," Rogov told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"So it's going to be necessary to start coming to agreements -- with Europe, with China. And, in my opinion, with Russia as well," he continues. "There are fairly serious disagreements over issues like whether Georgia and Ukraine will join NATO. And Obama may be inclined to take significant steps toward reducing nuclear weapons, and fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Obama may be seen as a less combative option than his Republican opponent, 72-year-old John McCain, who has called for Russia to be expelled from the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries and was a stalwart defender of Georgia during its war with Russia in August.

Some Russian officials appear to think Obama's election may be good for Moscow. "Russia shouldn't try to press the new U.S. president in pursuit of quick concessions," said Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee.

Kosachyov added that Obama "isn't burdened by the inertia of Cold War-era thinking," and may prove a flexible partner for the Kremlin.

Rogov says he does not expect the United States to dramatically alter its tone in dealings with Russia under the new administration. If anything, he says, the dialogue may grow less aggressive.

"The rhetoric has already been fairly harsh for the past few years under the Bush administration, and particularly since the start of the Russian-Georgian war. I don't think the vocality of this rhetoric is going to soften substantially," Rogov says.

"But, to tell you the truth, I'm not expecting things to get any worse," he continues. "In principle, the level of this rhetoric is very high, but what comes next? Declare a cold war? Begin containing Russia? Those were ideas put forward by McCain, not Obama. Obama has shown himself to be more measured."

Democratic Inspiration

Among Russia's beleaguered democrats, there was a sense of hope that Obama's ascendancy to the presidency -- buoyed by massive public support and promises of sweeping social change -- might eventually spark a similar phenomenon in Russia.

The juxtaposition of Obama's dynamic, emotional acceptance address in Chicago and Medvedev's colorless, hard-line Kremlin speech the next day was a stark illustration of the difference in the two leaders' political styles.

Vladimir Lysenko, a former longtime Duma deputy with the now-banned liberal Republican Party, says he likes to think Obama's election in the United States may be reflected in political changes at home.

"Liberal-minded Russians are welcoming Obama's victory and see what's happening in the United States as a definitive democratic revolution," Lysenko says.

"Compared to George W. Bush, whose two terms in office in my opinion were marked by complete ineptitude, Obama looks like a fresh start. Many of the ideas he's putting forward are similar to those of the democratic forces in Russia," he adds.

"I hope that gradually we will finally be able to break free of the totalitarian regime that has taken hold in Russia and join other democratic countries as part of a new, modern community."

Russia may have been stingy in its welcome to the U.S. president-elect, but in Ukraine, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko joined the chorus of global voices congratulating Obama on his victory. In a telegram, Tymoshenko said: "Your victory inspires us. Things that seemed impossible become feasible."

Obama's election, however, may put in doubt future U.S. support for Ukraine's NATO bid. John McCain was seen as a stronger proponent of NATO expansion and more willing to confront Russia on the issue.

The election outcome may have ramifications for Georgia for the same reason. But speaking in Tbilisi late on November 4 before the U.S. results were announced, President Mikheil Saakashvili said he would welcome a win by either McCain or Obama.

He added, however, that Obama and his vice-presidential running mate, Joe Biden -- who, like McCain, Saakashvili called an "old friend" -- have "concrete plans about strengthening Georgia."

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