Last summer, for the first time since the now-misty days of Soviet communism, U.S.-Russia relations took center stage in American politics. In the wake of the war in Georgia, with its unnerving sight of Russian tanks crossing the border of a former satellite, talk of a resurgent, aggressive Moscow was everywhere. During the presidential debates, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain fielded questions on whether the Evil Empire was back.
By the time Election Day rolled around, Georgia was no longer on everyone's mind and the Russian bear seemed far less scary than the bears on Wall Street. Still, Moscow will be an urgent foreign policy priority for the Obama White House. Apart from the sometimes forgotten fact that Russia retains nuclear parity with the United States, it remains a key player in a number of vital international issues, including nuclear proliferation and the war in Afghanistan. In the worst-case scenario (unlikely in the near future, given Russia's significant domestic and military problems), an interventionist Russia could provoke the U.S. military to defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe or the Baltic. If, on the other hand, relations with Russia take a more pacific turn, a genuine partnership could help the U.S. scale down its military commitments in regions where a pro-Western Russia would be a stabilizing influence.