Sunday, March 29, 2009

Obama’s 50-50 Russia Strategy

Successful arms-control talks between Russia and the U.S. could also help matters in Iran and Afghanistan.

Andrew Nagorski
From the magazine issue dated Apr 6, 2009
Even to some of the closest observers of Russian foreign policy, it's almost impossible to know which direction Moscow is headed. One day it's threatening to station missiles aimed at Poland in its western enclave of Kaliningrad; the next, it's proclaiming its eagerness to take up Washington's offer to press the "reset button" on U.S.-Russia relations. One day, it's vowing to help with supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan; the next, it's offering Kyrgyzstan some $2 billion in loans and aid, emboldening the Central Asian country to demand the closure of the U.S. air base there. One day, it's signaling its solidarity with Western efforts to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons; the next, it's refusing to rule out the sale of sophisticated S-300 ground-to-air missiles to Tehran.

All this raises a key question: at President Barack Obama's meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London on April 1, which Russia will he be seeing? Most likely, both leaders will accentuate the positive, voicing hopes for a new cooperative relationship between their two countries—and for good reason: Moscow and Washington have more in common than one might think.

For starters, both sides are eager for new nuclear-arms-control agreements that would allow them to scale back their arsenals and prevent a new arms race that neither side can afford in the midst of the current economic crisis. And the history of U.S.-Russian relations shows that talks on doomsday weapons tend to set the tone on all issues. A breakthrough on arms control could spill over into other fronts, including Afghanistan and Iran.

Moscow is more worried than it lets on about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, despite its major commercial and arms deals with Tehran. Like Washington, it is well aware of the potential wild card this could be. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons would have a huge psychological impact, raising the confidence of Muslims throughout the region—including in rebellious regions of southern Russia and the ex-Soviet republics over the border.

The same factor—resurgent Islam—makes the quest for stability in Afghanistan as important to Russia as it is to the United States. Washington worries that Muslim extremists could spark more terrorist attacks on Western targets; Russia is concerned that Afghanistan's failure would spill over into Tajikistan and other border states, where Muslim extremists would destabilize pro-Russian governments.

In one sense, Afghanistan is a live threat to Russia. Victor Ivanov, the head of Russia's anti-narcotics service, recently warned that a massive influx of heroin from Afghanistan is "a key negative factor for demography and a blow to our nation's gene pool." With Russia facing a sharp drop in its population because of alcoholism and an abysmal health-care system, the heroin explosion is only worsening the downward spiral. An estimated 2.5 million Russians are now addicts, according to the Ministry of Health.

Still, reaching any agreement with the prickly Medvedev– Vladimir Putin regime will be a struggle. The Obama administration is well aware of just how quickly U.S.-Russia relations can sour. When George W. Bush took office, he too expressed his eagerness for a new relationship with Russia. Then-President Putin reciprocated the sentiment. Yet the relationship soon degenerated into acrimony. After last summer's brief Georgia-Russia war, relations plunged into the deep freeze.

Russia's deteriorating economic situation may further exacerbate tensions. Over the past several months much of the wealth generated by soaring energy prices has evaporated, and the Kremlin has reacted furiously to the first manifestations of social discontent, dispatching Interior Ministry troops all the way from Moscow to the far-eastern port of Vladivostok to stamp out small protests.

Washington's greatest fear is that the Kremlin won't have the patience for talks and diplomatic cooperation, and will instead adopt a more confrontational posture to deflect attention from the mounting economic and social problems at home. In that pessimistic scenario, another conflict in Georgia or elsewhere could doom all hope for a better relationship. Worse yet, the Russians would go ahead with the sale of the S-300 missiles to Iran, setting off a dangerous sequence of events. Worried about the potency of those weapons, Israel could feel compelled to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities before they are deployed.

Though the Obama team has spoken of hitting the "reset button" in Russian relations, it knows the chances of a real turnaround are 50-50, at best. Its current strategy is to ignore the more negative signals coming out of the Kremlin and take the professions of good will seriously. It realizes that its best shot at changing course is now, when both sides have maximum incentive to start anew—but that there are no guarantees of success.

Nagorski, a former NEWSWEEK Moscow bureau chief and editor, is director of public policy and senior fellow at the EastWest Institute.


Lucky Charms said...

I hope that, for the sake of both countries, U.S.-Russia relations will take a turn for the better. Not only can we not afford a negative relationship with Russia economically, but we can't afford it security-wise either. Hopefully Medvedev will come to the table with an Putin-free open mind.

bulbasaur75 said...

I hope it gets better but the long time animousity of the two countries may hold peace back. What I am most worried about is the sale of the bombs to Iran and their nuclear program.

Lance51 said...

Plus, Iran having nukes or somethign might start a WWIII. Which would be a bad thing for everyone. If we go in to save Israel, then all the middle east backs Iran, we could be in for same hard times ahead. Lets just hope that it doesn't get to that and our two leaders can work things out like grown men instead of babies.

The Burninator said...

At the very least, if we plunge ourselves into a second cold war, we'll pull out of our recession. History shows that war or the threat of imminent war has always been good for a capitalist society. It will also give us a reason to improve our schools and foster innovation, as it did in the first Cold War.

Of course, no one wants a second cold war, but we have to find a silver lining somewhere.

Runningman18 said...

I agree their have always been tensions between the two nations, and if both countries can move forward in piece everyone will live much safer and more secure

Rambunctious Mongoose said...

If U.S. and Russian relations don't improve our security threat could be at an extreme high. Russia could be an extreme threat to the U.S. if relations break down, much like they were during the Cold War period as well. Hopefully, however, relations will never get that bad, because Obama will hopefully improve the relationship between the two nations.

The Non Bright Lamp said...

The Russians can say peace all they want... but I don't really trust Dmitry Medvedev yet alone Putin. I mean the Russian government has been talking about peace for years, and recently, they invaded Georgia. It'll be interesting to see how everything works out in the long run.

Sidewalk Chalk said...

WWIII will be started because of nuclear warfare stuff... its sooo obvious...hopefully we wont have to deal with it in our lifetime but if the sales to Iran happen who knows what is right around the corner.

Goldfish said...

Both of these countries are power hungry, the United States and Russia. We will not have peace until one country steps down and and listens to the other. In other words... Russia complying with the U.S.

pawbearcatpaw said...

I think staying out of other countries business is our best option. I think we will have more peace and respect from Russia. I would like to see the U.S.-Russia relations get better but we should be careful not to be too pushy. said...

This relationship is currently like a ticking time bomb.. If our leaders cant put the past behind us and move on we are in for some serious trouble. our national security will go flying out the door. and we will be sitting ducks. but hey if we go into another cold war, at least the economy will pick up. but lets hope we dont have to resort to that. because getting nuked could be hazardous to everyone's health.