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U.S. and Russia turn a corner

Presidents Obama and Medvedev have set about rebuilding what will be a crucial 21st century relationship for both.

The Russian response on Iran was notable, said Hart, who led a blue-ribbon commission on U.S.-Russia relations with former Sen. Chuck Hagel, at the behest of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and The Nixon Center here.

“Medvedev and other Russian leaders made it clear to us they have no interest at all to see Iran as a nuclear weapons power ... We need to lash ourselves together on that one.”

The biggest obstacle to better relations lies in Eastern Europe, and the question of Russian meddling in former Soviet states and satellites. In recent years, Russia has used its ample energy reserves to apply economic pressure on Europe and the Ukraine; fought a border war with neighboring Georgia; and objected to NATO’s plans to expand, and base a missile defense system in the region.

That issue may be intractable, said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. The Russians “love to mud wrestle — they love to shove and push,” he said.

The best Obama may hope for is to “deter them from the mischief Russians are naturally prone to” along their borders, and look for achievement elsewhere.

In a briefing that followed the meeting, American officials said Obama told his Russian counterpart “very strongly” that the U.S. would not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two restive regions of Georgia that Russia seem intents on peeling away, and “made clear the idea of a sphere of influence is an idea whose time is long past.”

“This was an ambitious agenda,” said a senior administration official involved in the discussions. “I’ll tell you honestly, I was not optimistic when we started ... that we would get it done for this meeting.”

But after an exchange of letters between the two presidents, and some prep work conducted by their foreign ministries, Medvedev “got his government to engage in it in a very serious way,” the official said. “I think (it) is a statement of the possibilities in U.S.-Russian relations.”

The economic crisis that has spot-lit the G20 meetings might actually help ease strains between the United States and Russia.

During the Bush administration, the U.S. was focused on the Muslim world, and appeared to take Russia’s interests for granted. The American attitude exacerbated Russia’s “deep insecurity” as a fading world power, according to Columbia University professor Robert Legvold, and so it became more militant and adventurous.

Now the collapse of the price of oil, with the commensurate drop in revenues and resultant economic pain, could prompt Russia to cooperate more with Europe and the United States, said Andrew Kuchins, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Russia’s economic hubris has been smashed.”

Indeed, aside from the issue of NATO expansion, the U.S. and Russia do not have great clashing interests, said Gelb: “We have a lot of business we can do with them.”

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