Cathy Young

Will there be a thaw in US-Russian relations?

By Cathy Young
January 31, 2009
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EVEN BEFORE Barack Obama's victory in November, many voiced hope that he could end the "new Cold War" between the United States and Russia. A week after the inauguration, the White House said that Obama and Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, had discussed "stopping the drift in US-Russia relations." Will the conciliatory rhetoric become reality?

Russia's intentions are far from clear; and, while flexibility is Obama's trademark, he is no dove. In fact, Obama may be in an excellent position to pursue a balanced policy toward Russia: containment if necessary, cooperation when possible, and encouragement of democracy. Whether this policy will be a friendly or adversarial one is largely up to the Kremlin.

Much of the talk of mending relations with Russia comes from pundits who believe the current tensions are largely America's fault. The United States, they charge, treated Russia with a triumphalist arrogance after the fall of the Soviet Union, ignoring Russia's legitimate interests and brushing aside its security concerns, bringing NATO to its borders by extending membership to former Soviet satellites, and seeking to install missile defense systems next door in Eastern Europe.

This view largely dovetails with the official Russian position. But does it reflect reality? No doubt, many Russians felt humiliated by their country's loss of superpower status after the Cold War. After nearly a century of failures and upheavals, Russia has a fragile collective ego. Many people view the West, and particularly the United States, with a mix of resentment, suspicion, and craving for respect. Under the regime of Vladimir Putin, and its continuation under Medvedev, state propaganda has exploited and encouraged these attitudes. Fear and hatred of a powerful enemy can be used to rally popular support and justify authoritarianism; belligerent rhetoric toward the United States can boost national pride.

Many Russian political commentators, such as Carnegie Endowment senior scholar Lilia Shevtsova, believe that it is this mix of ego, paranoia, and self-serving propaganda that drives the Russian government's objections to NATO enlargement and missile defense.

Writing in the online magazine last April, General Vladimir Dvorkin, a former top-level Soviet arms negotiator, argued that the Kremlin's real fear is not a military threat from NATO, but "civilizational isolation" if it continues to resist democracy and openness while its neighbors become fully integrated into the democratic capitalist West.

In another piece, Dvorkin noted that even if the proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe was intended as a defense against Russia, it could barely intercept one out of every 1,000 Russian missiles.

Obama is known to be somewhat skeptical of the value of missile defense, as are many scientists. (It should be noted, however, that NATO backs the planned US missile shield.) Questions about its effectiveness should be explored; but, ironically, recent Russian threats to put missiles on the Polish border may make it difficult for the United States to abandon these plans without appearing to cave in to blackmail. While NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is probably off the table for the time being because of those countries' own internal problems, the United States needs to send a strong signal that these countries are not fair game for Russian bullying.

Joint strategies to promote stability in Afghanistan and curb Iran's nuclear ambitions - often mentioned as a likely area of US-Russian cooperation - would ultimately be in Russia's interest as well as ours. But for such cooperation to succeed, Russia would have to abandon its current political mind-set in which prestige is equated with challenging the United States rather than working together.

Obama's inaugural speech contained remarkable words that read like a direct message to the Putin-Medvedev regime (and was seen as such by the regime's critics in Russia): "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Perhaps these words hit too close to home: Russia's government-run TV news program Vesti, which broadcast the speech and posted excerpts on its website, doctored the translation to remove the reference to "the silencing of dissent."

If this message will be the foundation of Obama's policy on Russia, then the president has struck the right note, confronting autocracy but leaving the door open to partnership.

Cathy Young, a contributing editor for Reason magazine, is author of "Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood."

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