U.S. and Russia turn a corner

WASHINGTON – Wednesday’s productive meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was a significant step toward repairing a relationship that, due to bruised Russian pride and American inattention, had fallen into disrepair.

“It was a corner-turning meeting,” said former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, who chaired a recent commission on relations between the two countries. “I have felt for a long time that Russia was going to be very, very important to the United States in the 21st century in a whole lot of ways — counter-terrorism, energy — and that we ought to have close ties to them and help move them to modernity.

“And it looks like the Obama administration will be the ones to do that,” Hart said.

By harvesting some low-hanging but important diplomatic fruit, the two leaders set out to rebuild relations, hoping that immediate accomplishment can pave the way for progress on knottier, more divisive, issues.

“The relations between our countries have been adrift over the past years,” Medvedev acknowledged, when the two leaders met with the press. “As President Obama has said, they were drifting, and drifting in some wrong directions.”

Like everyone else in the world of foreign policy, Medvedev couldn’t help but succumb to a metaphor that’s become a cliché: “The time has come to 'reset.' ”

Just what will “reset” mean?

First off, is the low-hanging fruit. The two presidents said their nations will initiate a new round of strategic arms talks, designed to cut the number of nuclear warheads in each of their arsenals to well below 2000. The current Start treaty, which governs arms limits, is due to expire in December, and the two sides hope to report progress when Obama visits Russia, as they announced, in July.

“There is an awful lot of that to be ironed out, and it drags on,” Hart said. But, he added, “I would be surprised if they don’t have (basic agreement on) the numbers and types of weapons systems” to announce during Obama’s trip.

Next up are issues of more difficulty, like nuclear proliferation. Both nations are leery of Islamic fundamentalism, and concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. But though their interests align, the two countries have differed on how to meet the danger, with America favoring a more robust international response. They appear to have compromised in London, with the U.S. recognizing Iran’s need for a domestic nuclear power program and the Russians, in return, pledging to work harder to limit the Iranian effort to civilian uses.

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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