The Obama Team Should Rein in Russia's Expectations
Russian officials should like what they are seeing from the Obama administration: President Obama has exchanged public comments and personal letters with President Dmitry Medvedev. Vice President Biden declared last month that we ought to press the "reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations. In her meeting today with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to continue ratcheting down tensions. But while improved ties with Moscow are desirable, the Obama team should rein in expectations and avoid the "grand bargain" that some in the United States and Europe have recommended.
The "bargain" is simple: In exchange for Russian cooperation on containing the Iranian nuclear threat and other strategic issues, the United States would, to varying degrees, scale back its relations with Russia's neighbors, pause on missile defense plans and stay quiet about Russia's deteriorating human rights situation. For the United States to hush up about the crackdown would have been unthinkable before Clinton's disappointing suggestion in China last month that we should not allow human rights problems to "interfere" with more important matters. If they are smart, the Russians will seek a similar arrangement.
Many questions are raised by such a trade-off: What price would secure Russian cooperation on Iran? Who exactly is going to tell Ukraine or Georgia that we have returned to a "Russia first" policy? Does anyone believe that saying nothing about Kremlin crackdowns on domestic opponents would keep Moscow on board? And what if all this isn't enough? Moscow is likely to keep raising the fee for its cooperation -- in effect, extorting the United States.
For years, Bush administration policy toward Russia revolved around efforts to work with Moscow wherever possible but to push back whenever necessary, especially after the invasion of Georgia. Our Russia policy was far from perfect the past eight years, but the chief problems lie in Moscow, and improved relations are unlikely until they are sorted out.
Moscow sees its surroundings in revisionist, zero-sum terms. Russia has tried to maintain a "sphere of influence" along its borders, regardless of neighboring states' desires to lean westward. Moscow is threatened by Ukrainian and Georgian ties with NATO, even though NATO's eastward growth has been a source of stability over the past decade. Russia views multiple pipeline routes from Central Asia and the Caucasus as a risk to its monopolistic hold on regional energy resources. It has supported secessionist movements in Georgia and Moldova, and it even wants to establish military bases in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which it has recognized. And Moscow's role in Kyrgyzstan's decision to close a key U.S. air base last month raises questions about what sort of cooperation Russia's leaders would offer on Afghanistan. Moscow's thinking must change if the principal source of friction between Russia and the West and Russia and its neighbors is to disappear.
Just after Obama's election victory, Medvedev threatened to install short-range missiles near Poland if the United States continued with a missile defense system that the Bush administration advanced to counter an Iranian nuclear threat. Russia cannot accept that Poland and the Czech Republic are independent states -- much less members of NATO and the European Union -- that are cooperating with the United States on a missile system focused on Iran. Nor can it accept that they are not a threat to Russia's own (massive) nuclear capability.
The United States and Russia should be working together to counter Iran. It is in neither country's interest for Iran to become a nuclear state. Yet despite eventually agreeing to watered-down U.N. resolutions on Iran, Russia has sold Tehran anti-missile systems and threatens to sell the mullahs more advanced weaponry. In February a Russian deputy foreign minister rejected the idea that Moscow would get "tougher" with Tehran. And this week Medvedev rejected any missile defense-Iran deal. Russia's deteriorating economy and domestic discord are spooking Kremlin authorities, as was clear from Moscow's decision to send special forces to shut down protests in Vladivostok in December because local authorities weren't trusted to maintain control. Murders of journalists and human rights activists continue with no accountability and amid a growing sense of fear. Cracking down is the only approach Russian leaders seem to know.
Any "grand bargain" the United States makes with Russia would be viewed in Moscow as a sign of U.S. desperation. A major American shift in missile defense policy absent a real retreat by Iran would be seen as a sign of weakness and would undercut friendly governments in Warsaw and Prague. Yes, the United States should work with Russia on issues including Iran, North Korea, counterterrorism, arms control and Afghanistan. But both sides must show interest in cooperation; above all, we must not bargain away our relations with Russia's neighbors or our own values.
The writer was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor as well as deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in the George W. Bush administration.