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Obama's 'Window of Opportunity' for Improved Russia, EU Ties

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 23, 2009

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Charles A. Kupchan, CFR senior fellow for Europe studies and a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, says that because of Obama's "popularity and the departure of President Bush," there is a "window of opportunity to improve relations between the United States and Russia and between the United States and the European Union." But on the contentious issue of the deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, which has riled the Russians, Kupchan thinks the Obama administration will not cancel the project. There will, however, "be a deliberation about when and how to deploy such a system, and that might involve moving at a slower timetable to ensure that the technology is ready," Kupchan says.

There's great interest in Europe and Russia on what the Obama administration's policies will be in that part of the world. What do you think will happen?

Because of Barack Obama's popularity and the departure of President Bush, there is a window of opportunity to improve relations between the United States and Russia and between the United States and the European Union. The Obama administration is already, in its second day in office, taking steps to improve its relations with the Europeans by immediately moving to take action on closing the internment camp at Guantanamo Bay. This is an issue that has rankled trans-Atlantic relations for a long time. On the specific issue of dealing with Russia, it's a work in progress, and the Obama administration will have to do some serious thinking about how to alter its approach to the Russians and how to close the gap that has opened between European and American views on whether to engage Russia, particularly in the aftermath of the war in Georgia last August.

The war in Georgia, of course, cost the Russians considerable goodwill in Europe as well as in the United States, and the latest crisis over the natural gas holdup through Ukraine into Europe has also exacerbated tensions. What should be the issues that the United States and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the European Union should talk about in dealing with Russia right now?

"There will be a deliberation about when and how to deploy such a [missile defense] system, and that might involve moving at a slower timetable to ensure that the technology is ready."

The different American and European reactions to the Georgia war reveal a deep divergence in perspective. The United States tended to defend the Georgian government and put most blame squarely on the shoulders of Russia and wanted to react to the war by taking concrete steps to punish Russia and break off contacts, particularly within the context of NATO. And the Europeans had a somewhat more balanced view about the causes of the war, and saw the Georgian government as being partly responsible for the conflict which erupted over South Ossetia. Europe was less willing than the United States to see the war as a cause for a serious degradation of relations with Russia, and the EU has taken the lead in restoring dialogue between the European Union and Russia, and in restarting contacts between NATO and Russia. The Bush administration didn't have much choice except to go along. Now that the Obama administration is in office, many of the issues that roiled the waters before will continue to be problematic, and they include the possible enlargement of NATO, with the prospect of Georgia and Ukraine being admitted causing a great deal of discontent in Moscow.  For now that issue has been kicked down the road, and I don't expect the NATO summit that's upcoming this April to veer away from current policy, which is to stand behind, in a declaratory sense, eventual admission of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, but for now to push the issue into the future.

What about this question which has riled the Russians considerably, the plans to deploy antimissile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic?

This is another issue that has caused a lot of tension in U.S.-Russia relations. Soon after Obama was elected, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech where he indicated that Russia would deploy missiles in Kaliningrad to counter missiles that the United States intends to deploy in Poland.  If one goes by the position of the Obama administration during the campaign, then it is likely that Washington will rethink current U.S. policy. During the campaign, Obama's position was for principled support for a missile defense system, but a more relaxed time frame for development and deployment, based upon the fact that the testing by the Pentagon has not yet been completed, and the quality of the technology remains in question; that is to say it's not clear how effective the system would be.

Do you think Obama might just suspend the program?

The administration will back the system in principle. In the aftermath of 9/11, and in light of the continuing nuclear activities of Iran, it would be imprudent to suggest that some kind of missile defense system is unnecessary. But there will be a deliberation about when and how to deploy such a system, and that might involve moving at a slower timetable to ensure that the technology is ready, but also doing due diligence on the diplomatic front. Many felt that the Bush administration moved in a clumsy fashion and dealt in too bilateral of a way, that is to say it negotiated with Poland and with the Czech Republic, without consulting NATO and without doing enough to try to bring in the Russians. And you might recall that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice actually went to Moscow at one point and said, "Let's make this a system for all, let's secure Russian participation." So it may well be that a new dialogue is started with the NATO allies and including Russia to try to defang the political antagonism that the system has created. It may well be that the system can be deployed in a more favorable political atmosphere.

I do not expect cancellation of the program. I expect a review and a redo over the timing of the deployment and the nature of the diplomacy surrounding that deployment.

Now there are some arms agreements coming that need to be renewed, aren't there?

Yes, in conventional arms control and nuclear arms control, there are important revisions and updates that are pending. One issue to keep an eye on is whether the Obama administration will be more willing than the Bush administration to codify some of these new agreements and revisions. The Bush administration tended to be more comfortable with executive decisions and more ad hoc agreements, partly because of its discomfort with formalized treaties. The Russians wanted a more formal approach to these revisions, so this is an issue that will be in play. And then finally there is also the tension that remains over the status of Kosovo, which declared its independence early last year from Serbia. Russians, Serbs, and others continue to resist recognition of an independent Kosovo. And in many respects as an act of retaliation, the Russians have recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway regions of Georgia. The United States, along with the rest of the international community, has refused to acknowledge the independence of these two territories.  Now there will be a group grope at how to deal with the status of these three contested regions--Kosovo, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.

Do you think this will lead to some kind of universal summit? I know Medvedev talked about a meeting on European security that seemed to resemble the meetings in 1975 on European security, which the Russians had sought.

The proposals that have come out of Moscow have been very vague.  The Russians seem to want to create some kind of new transcendent body that might supersede NATO and OSCE [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and other existing institutions. The United States and its Western European allies are quite reluctant to move in a direction that would in any way undermine the current order. And that's even more true of the countries in Central Europe, which especially after the war in Georgia remain very concerned about Russian intentions, and are intent on trying to restore NATO's traditional focus on territorial defense, i.e. defending NATO's eastern border against potential Russia aggression.

Those are the former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and they are looking to Washington to fulfill NATO's treaty of protection, right?

Yes, and the commitment of the United States to the countries in Central Europe and to NATO's continued expansion will put the Obama administration in a somewhat awkward position, inasmuch as my guess is that it will continue to stand by enlargement of NATO in practice and in principle, but it will also have to balance that commitment if it wants to work with Russia on many different issues.  We just had an advance this week in Russia's willingness to allow military resupply to Afghanistan.  That's very important because the logistical route through the Khyber Pass [in Pakistan] has become more and more dangerous, so NATO needed to move more material through Russia and Central Asia.

There is the question of Iran. It may well be that Obama administration opens conversation of some type with Tehran, but if there is to be some kind of negotiated settlement, Russia's cooperation is no doubt important. So, there are a whole host of very important strategic issues that give Washington a strong incentive to keep a good working relationship with Moscow, and know that is even more true of the Europeans, who because of reasons of proximity and energy dependence, are very keen on a good working relationship with Moscow.

Do you think because there is more of a convergence of interests between the new administration and Europe, this will ease relations considerably between the Atlantic relationship?

Vis-à-vis Russia, or more generally?

Just more generally.

Yes. We're likely to see a period in which the Americans and the Europeans trade gestures of goodwill. So the Obama administration is likely to move forward on closing Guantanamo, and I would expect sometime soon a new policy on climate change. Those are policies that will be greeted with great enthusiasm in Europe. Indeed, Portugal and a few other countries are talking about taking some of the detainees from Guantanamo to help Obama close down the camp. In return, Washington will be expecting from Europeans more help in Afghanistan, both in terms of troops and in terms of economic assistance and civilian reconstruction assistance. Russia will remain a somewhat controversial issue, and it's unclear where the Obama administration will come out on cooperation with Russia in the sense that, yes, there are strong incentives to work with Moscow, but on the other hand Moscow has been doing policies that are quite confrontational, especially in the aftermath of the war in Georgia and the continued backsliding on democracy.

It's been suggested by some people that the severe drop in oil prices, from 146 dollars a barrel to 40 dollars a barrel, has deeply hurt Russia's economy and will have the effect of reducing the sort of confrontational nature of recent Russian policy. Do you agree?

It cuts both ways. On the positive side of the ledger there will be fewer resources around for building up the military or pursuing policies that are expensive and ambitious. Or sending fleets and aircraft on global surveillance missions.

Like the highly publicized flights by Russian bombers to Venezuela?

Yes. You know, a lot of this stuff is bluster, but it does require resources, and it requires a certain level of self-confidence. So from that perspective, Russia will be pulling in its horns. But the less positive interpretation would be that countries which experience economic distress tend to move in a nationalist and populist direction. And so it may be that if the Kremlin finds itself strapped and there is discontent among the Russian electorate, Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and others are more prone to rely on external ambition and nationalism to rally domestic support.

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