Obama Team Seeks to Redefine Russia Ties
U.S. Aiming at Strategic Goals With Proposals on Arms Reduction, Missile Defense, Economic Support

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Obama administration is preparing a wide-ranging set of initiatives designed to put shaky relations between the United States and Russia on a more solid footing, including resumption of strategic arms control talks as early as this spring, reactivation of the moribund NATO-Russia Council and possible U.S. reconsideration of plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, senior administration officials said.

The proposals, which President Obama plans to present to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when they meet for the first time next month, will also offer enhanced economic cooperation.

The administration hopes that the offer of a comprehensive new strategic relationship will encourage Russia to be more helpful in achieving U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Iran. At the same time, the White House is eager to give Medvedev a chance to put his stamp on the U.S.-Russia relationship, dominated for the past decade by former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

But as Obama's national security team rushes to put the package together, officials remain unsure of the reception it will get. An exchange of public comments and private letters between Obama and Medvedev over the past five weeks has left the administration optimistic but uncertain about whether the Russian president is willing or able to deliver.

So far, both governments have spoken in generalities, each prodding the other to move toward substance. Medvedev said yesterday that a discussion of missile defense contained in a lengthy letter Obama sent him last month was "a disappointment" and that he was looking for more "specific proposals" when they sit down together at an April 2 economic summit in London.

Obama yesterday disputed news reports that his letter -- a response to a missive from Medvedev -- offered to abandon plans to deploy missile defense components near the Russian border in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Moscow's help in stopping the Iranian nuclear program. He said he had merely repeated a previous, public observation that removal of the Iranian threat would eliminate the need to defend against it.

His message to Medvedev, Obama said, addressed "a whole range of issues, from nuclear proliferation to how we are going to deal with a set of common security concerns along the Afghan border, and terrorism. . . . My hope is that we can have a constructive relationship where, based on common respect and mutual interest, we can move forward."

Despite the attention paid to missile defense, the most urgent task before the administration is putting in place a negotiating team to begin work on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to replace the 1991 agreement with Moscow that expires at the end of this year. Although Obama has voiced strong support for additional sharp reductions, he has not specified any numbers. The Russians are likely to favor a relatively slow additional drawdown, but both sides are anxious to begin the process.

Medvedev also touched on other issues in comments made during a visit this week to Spain. "As to our cooperation on Afghanistan," he said, "we are interested in stepping it up rather than stopping it. . . . It is my understanding that this issue is high on the foreign policy agenda of the new U.S. president. We share this approach." Yesterday, the Russian government informed the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that the first shipment of American supplies to Afghanistan crossing Russian territory under a new agreement had reached the border of Kazakhstan.

Some experts say the administration may find itself disappointed by the intractability of the issues involved, while others are critical of what they see as Obama's over-willingness to make concessions. Moscow "will use our desire to bring the temperature down" to its advantage, on issues such as Russia's desire for hegemony over the former Soviet republics on its borders, said Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Russia's response to the overall U.S. package, officials and nongovernmental experts said, will depend on several intangibles. First is the government's calculation on whether rising public unrest over deteriorating economic conditions in Russia -- including riots in the western city of Vladivostok last month that resulted in the government dispatch of special forces units -- is better countered by blaming the West, or seeking its political and economic support. Putin and other senior Russian officials have drawn parallels between growing domestic opposition in Russia and Western-backed "revolutions" that led to the installation of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

The second consideration is the still-unclear power relationship between Putin and Medvedev, his hand-picked successor. The Obama administration thinks its chances of long-term rapprochement are better with Medvedev, viewed as a member of Russia's new, post-communist generation, than with Putin, a former party member and KGB agent.

"It depends on their domestic political assessment," said Klaus Scharioth, Germany's ambassador to the United States. "I think none of us really knows." He said Russia gave "some positive signals" last month at a security conference in Munich, where Vice President Biden said the Obama administration planned to "push the reset button" on its relations with Moscow, which had sharply deteriorated last year. "But there was no statement saying, 'Yes, we will,' or 'No, we won't,' " Scharioth said of Russia's response. "Just some positive noises."

The NATO-Russia Council, a proven avenue of cooperation between the East and the West whose operations were suspended in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia last summer, is likely to be revived at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers this week. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will then hold her first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

NATO and the Obama administration are hopeful that an active council will lessen Russia's insistence on maintaining a regional "sphere of influence." NATO's major European players, including Germany, are anxious to move beyond the upheavals of last year resulting from the Georgia conflict and Russia's protests over consideration of alliance membership for Georgia and Ukraine. They would like to make clear to Moscow that both countries are years away from NATO admission, a point the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor in the White House, quietly concedes.

The administration is also open to the possibility of considering missile defense within the council -- a move that would probably be met with protests from Poland and the Czech Republic, both NATO members that view their selection as sites for system components as insurance against Russian influence.

Although looking forward yesterday to dealing with Russia on "common security concerns," Obama was quick to note that any changes in U.S. missile defense plans would "in no way . . . diminish" American security support for Poland and the Czech Republic.

Staff writer Philip P. Pan in Moscow contributed to this report.

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