Misha Japaridze/AP
Matryoshkas, traditional Russian nesting dolls made of wood, depicting U.S. President Barack
Obama, left, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, second from right, and Russian Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin, right.

Russia and U.S. Have a Clean Slate, But What Comes Next?

March 19, 2009 12:30 PM
by Liz Colville
As Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and President Obama prepare to meet at the G20 economic summit, some ponder this new chapter of U.S.-Russia relations.

The “Russia reset”

President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia will meet for the first time April 2. Medvedev recently said he had “a broad agenda” with Obama, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. Topics will likely include “arms control, efforts against terrorism and economic problems.”

The meeting has been primed by several recent foreign policy moves by the two countries. At a February security conference in Munich, Germany, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the White House was seeking to “press the reset button” on what the Washington Post called “its increasingly troublesome relationship with Russia.”

“The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and members of our alliance,” Biden said, according to the Post, adding that the U.S. and Russia could “disagree but still work together where its interests coincide.”

President Medvedev applauded the election of Obama as president, but the day after the election, he announced that Russia would retaliate against a missile shield the Pentagon is planning to install in Eastern Europe “by moving batteries of Iskander short-range missiles to the Polish border—the first time that Russia has openly threatened to target Europe since the end of the Cold War,” the Post noted.

The Pentagon’s shield is intended to serve as protection against missiles fired from “Iran or other ‘rogue states’” into Europe or the United States, according to the Post. In a private letter to Medvedev at the end of February, Obama intimated he would “shelve the plan in exchange for Russia’s help on Iran,” The New York Times wrote. While the Times said Medvedev welcomed the letter, he also “dismissed the notion” of an agreement on those terms.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time March 7. Clinton said that the U.S. and Russia “have the opportunity to cooperate on missile defense.” That includes, she said, “conducting joint research and joint development and even, eventually, assuming we can reach such an agreement, joint deployment,” Radio Free Europe reported.

Most recently, Medvedev spoke on Russian national television Mar. 17 about going ahead with significant military spending, in spite of the country’s economic challenges, because of “an increasing threat of armed conflict” against Russia, Bloomberg reported.

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Opinion & Analysis: Shaping the U.S. and Russia's new relationship

There are several key issues on the table for U.S. and Russia as outlined in a recent BBC article: the potential NATO membership of Georgia and Ukraine; differing stances on Afghanistan and Iran; and the reduction of both countries’ nuclear stockpiles. The BBC analyzes areas of overlap on these issues and finds room for agreement.

On the issue of Iran, Stephen Blank in World Politics Review argues that Russia— though not publicly—views Iran as “a potential ally against America in the Middle East and Persian Gulf,” adding that Russia also “believes that support for Iran in the form of arms sales keeps Iran from sponsoring Islamic militants.” In short, Blank said, “Moscow regards U.S. invocations of the proliferation threat as over-hyped, self-serving attempts to oust Russia from the Iranian market.”

NATO is a key factor in how U.S.-Russia relations will play out, suggests Ronald Asmus in The Wall Street Journal. Asmus outlines the differing opinions of NATO member countries on Russian relations and on key issues like Afghanistan and increased NATO membership in Eastern Europe, pointing out that to many European members, working with Russia in areas such as energy is important.

Asmus recommends retrieving the “balance between strategic reassurance and engagement” that NATO sought following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. “The more secure America's allies feel and the stronger solidarity is within the alliance, the more effective we will be in engaging Russia.”

Historical Context: Russia-Georgia Conflict; Russia-Venezuela Relations

The Georgia-Russia conflict in August changed Russia’s foreign policy stance considerably, according to a BBC Q&A article on the conflict. Following the conflict, Medvedev said “Russia does not seek isolation, and desires friendly relations with Europe and the US,” but it won’t stand for conditions in which one country is “sole global decision-maker,” the BBC reported. Russia wants to “maintain privileged interests in its spheres of influence—including those bordering the country.”

In January 2009, Russia and Venezuela began drilling for oil around the island of Aruba, underscoring the growing relationship between the two countries and causing concern about their ambitions in the Western hemisphere.

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