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Washington, Moscow, and the future of "partial cooperation"
MOSCOW — As much of the world rejoiced in the victory of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took the stage to deliver his first ever state of the nation address.
The date of the speech had already been changed twice, and it was no accident that the Russian president chose Nov. 5 as the day he would threaten to point missiles at Europe for the first time since the Soviet era in response to U.S. missile defense plans.
"America is the world's only superpower, and the only power that can present an existential threat to Russia," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst.
The timing of Medvedev's speech reflects what Russian officials point to as recent U.S. moves to undermine their natual alliances with ex-Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine.
"Ninety percent of the problem we've got is Ukraine in NATO and that's not going to change," said Nikonov. "Ukraine in NATO is an existential threat to Russia."
The threat, Nikonov says, also comes from Georgia, which saw Russian troops swarming into its territory in August, in Moscow's first cross-border military action since the end of the Cold War. Medvedev decried U.S. support for the Georgian president and accused aggressive U.S. policy of being behind the war.
Anti-U.S. rhetoric has grown deafeningly loud in Moscow, as Russia reels from the global financial crisis, which hit the country in September. Its economic miracle, buoyed by five years of steadily increasing oil prices, has collapsed. The country's markets have lost 75 percent of their value, at least $100 billion has fled the country, and the government has spent about one-third of its vast foreign reserve holdings to defend the ruble.
Medvedev's popularity, as well as that of his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, rests squarely on the rise in living standards that most Russians saw during the country's oil-fueled boom.
Putin, known for his colorful language, has taken to calling the financial crisis an "infection" spread by the United States.
But some inside Russia see the global financial crisis as a blessing because it could allow Russia to put forward solutions to the crisis while distracting Obama from Russian intentions at home.
"He'll be much more interested in internal improvements," said Anatoly Utkin, a professor at Russia's Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies. "The current crisis is our best friend in this case."
One friend Russia might overlook is Obama himself. The incoming administration has suggested some possible policy shifts that could be in Russia's favor.
For example, Obama's advisors have hinted that the president-elect would push Ukraine to hold a referendum on the issue of NATO membership, one that might fail in a country split by allegiance to Russia and to the West.
"Russia wants some sort of buffer between itself and Western Europe and NATO," said Nick Day, CEO of Diligence, a private intelligence firm. "What really pushed all this is NATO's attempt to expand eastwards."
The Obama team has also given tepid support to the Bush administration's plans to build a missile defense system in Europe, another issue that has greatly soured relations with Russia and which prompted Medvedev's threat to point missiles at Europe in his Nov. 5 speech.
So far these hints have not prompted Moscow to look anew at Washington.
Just look at the differences between the two cultures to understand Russia's attitude toward the U.S. and its hopeful new president, said Utkin.
"Never ask a Russian if he is optimistic or pessimistic," he said. "They are all, by history, fatalistic."
Russia's leaders have worked hard over the past eight years to prove they have left the chaotic 1990s behind, put the house in order and deserve to rejoin the global elite.
The U.S., Russian officials believe, has failed to acknowledge the success of their efforts.
"If I were to describe the current status of the Russia-U.S. relationship it would be as partial cooperation. We still cooperate on the issues we did during détente [in the mid-1980s] — proliferation, the Middle East. There's not a big difference," said Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. "We've been trying to discuss the idea of having a new positive post-Cold War bilateral agenda in our relationship. We have failed."