The charade of Russia’s presidential elections is now past, and to no one’s surprise, Sunday’s plebiscite ratified the Kremlin’s choice of Dmitry Medvedev to succeed Vladimir Putin. Medvedev’s victory provides an opportunity to turn the page on a difficult chapter in relations between Russia and the United States, and the Bush administration needs to reach out to Medvedev in the early stages of his presidency if it wants to reverse the dangerous downturn in relations with Moscow.
After a period of great optimism following Russia’s decision to aid the United States in the war on terror, US-Russian relations have gone into an apparent free fall during Putin’s second term as president. The principal reason for this downturn has to do with the increasingly aggressive tone of Russian diplomacy. Flush with cash from its oil and gas, the Kremlin has increasingly rejected Western leadership and sought to assert itself internationally in ways that have often been damaging to American and Western interests.
The result has been a series of clashes between Moscow and Washington over everything from energy sales to the fate of arms control agreements, to Russia’s involvement in Iran’s nuclear program. As the dominant figure in all aspects of Russian governance, Putin bears much of the responsibility for turning Russia down the path of confrontation. In Medvedev’s current position as first deputy prime minister, meanwhile, his responsibilities have been mostly in the field of social welfare. Still, to the extent he has spoken about foreign affairs, Medvedev has mostly said the right things.
Though he serves as chairman of the board of the gas monopoly Gazprom, Medvedev has called for opening Russia to outside investment. In a major speech to the All-Russian Civic Forum in late January, Medvedev said Russia needed to focus on promoting internal development rather than engaging in foreign adventures. While Putin in recent years devoted much effort to castigating the United States as a disruptive force, Medvedev has struck a more optimistic tone, arguing recently that Russia and the United States share common values that will force them to cooperate.
As a lawyer, Medvedev seems to have foreign policy instinctsquite different from those of Putin, a former spy. Whether those instincts will translate into greater accommodation toward the United States and its allies depends in part on factors no one in Washington can control. Putin plans to stay on as prime minister, and his influence on foreign policy may remain considerable. Medvedev’s apparent liberalism has given rise to unease among many in the security services, who could if they choose block any attempts to promote a rapprochement with the United States.
Despite these dangers, there is much US leaders can do to promote greater cooperation with President Medvedev’s Russia. Washington can send a signal that it is open to renewing the relationship by abandoning the outdated Jackson-Vanik Amendment, adopted in 1974 to pressure Moscow into allowing Soviet Jews to leave for Israel. It can announce that it is willing to open negotiations about its placement of missile interceptor stations in Poland and the Czech Republic. It can signal its long-term commitment to preserving the existing arms control regime, which includes extending the START-I agreement and negotiating new rounds of verifiable mutual reductions. Each of these developments would be desirable in any case; announcing them now would allow the United States to signal its interest in improved relations while putting the ball in Moscow’s court.
Sadly, the United States has done little to challenge widespread Russian perceptions that it adheres to a double standard in dealing with Moscow. It praises Pakistan’s authoritarian president, Pervez Musharraf , while criticizing Putin’s Russia for undermining democracy. Washington also supported the independence of Kosovo from Russia’s ally Serbia, but rejects calls for the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from United States ally Georgia.
The belief that the United States will never take Russia’s interests into account has helped Putin build support for his more confrontational policy toward the West. Medvedev bears little responsibility for that policy. He at least appears open to reconsidering it. The United States could help him by sending signals that it is willing to listen to him.
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