Amidst the host of challenges confronting President Obama at this week's G-20 summit in London, his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offers one bright spot. The cautious rapprochement between Russia and the US since Obama's inauguration has created an opening for the US to enlist Russian help on a wide range of foreign policy challenges. President Obama should take advantage of this opportunity, but to do so he will have to acknowledge a difficult truth -- namely that Russia is not interested in becoming part of the West and believes its interests and those of the West remain distinct.
Russia has long been a difficult partner. It has attempted to sabotage democracy in its neighbors, even as the Kremlin grows increasingly repressive at home. It sells weapons to nasty regimes in Syria and Iran and callously lets Europeans freeze in order to get its way in a dispute with Ukraine over energy sales. It invades one neighbor (Georgia) and threatens to point nuclear missiles at another (Ukraine) if it joins NATO.
The West continues to argue that NATO expansion and the emergence of anti-Russian regimes in countries like Georgia are not counter to Russia's interest, which would be true only if Russia saw itself as an actual or aspiring part of the West. US and European policy makers have been slow to come to grips with the fact that Russia does not see itself in that light. Assimilating Russia into the West should not be the aim of American policy. Rather, the US should focus on getting Russia to play a constructive international role on issues where it remains influential. With a new administration in the White House, Washington has the opportunity to recalibrate the basic goals of its Russia policy in a way conducive both to improved US-Russian relations and to US interests more broadly.
While Russian resentment towards the West is still palpable in some circles, especially around Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the economic crisis has forced Moscow to rein in its more grandiose ambitions. Already the Kremlin has spent around $200 billion to prop up banks, bail out favored oligarchs, and slow the devaluation of the ruble. It faces a budget deficit of nearly $125 billion this year, while foreign observers estimate the country's unemployment rate to be over 8% and climbing. Worried that the crisis will feed social unrest, the Kremlin increasingly cannot afford to merely blame the US for all its problems, especially a US led by a popular new president keen to restore the mantle of legitimacy to American leadership. Moscow needs Washington now more than in recent years, but Russia remains a prickly, defensive power sensitive to perceived slights.
Obama ought to use his first meeting with Medvedev to make clear that he wants to see Russia succeed as a strong, respected power that plays by internationally accepted rules of the game. He should make clear that the US will judge Russia by the same standards it judges China, India, and other big powers. That means the US should not make demands of Russia it does not make of others. It also means that Russia does not get any special favors, like recognition of a "sphere of privileged interests" around its borders.
Along with scaling back support for missile defense in Eastern Europe, Obama should communicate his firm support for bringing Russia into the World Trade Organization and dropping the discriminatory Jackson-Vanik Amendment (steps that would require real political leadership in the midst of an economic downturn).
Making the relationship work also means that Washington cannot always set the agenda. It would therefore help if Obama, unlike Bush, thanked Medvedev for his proposal to re-vamp Europe's security "architecture" and expressed U.S. willingness to negotiate in good faith on the idea - and to help bring skeptical Europeans to the table as well. Finally, Obama should leave no doubt that renewed Russian aggression against its neighbors will have serious consequences.
With a U.S. administration less inclined to lecture and a chastened Russia more inclined to listen, Obama and Medvedev just might be able to head off a renewed period of confrontation -- if they keep their goals modest. One meeting between leaders will not be enough to overcome two decades of lost opportunities, but Obama can at least commit the US more firmly to a policy of outreach and engagement, one where Russia is more than just a passive recipient of US advice.
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