Monday, March 30, 2009
WITH A FIRST presidential meeting set for this week between Barack Obama and Russia's Dmitry Medvedev, it appears that the two sides may have different ideas of what to expect from the "reset" in relations that the Obama administration has promised.
The Russian view seems to be that the resetting has to come primarily from the Americans. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov furthered that impression in an interview with the Financial Times last week. "Practically on any problematic issue which we inherited from the past eight years, I understand the Obama administration is undertaking a review which we welcome," Mr. Lavrov said. Russian officials appear to hope that such a review will mean less U.S. pressure to form a united front against Iran's development of a nuclear weapon and, above all, acceptance of a Russian "sphere of influence" over countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact -- what Mr. Medvedev has called "a region of privileged interest."
Indications from Washington, recently reinforced by Mr. Obama, suggest that his administration does not share this view of a one-sided need for change. The administration is hoping for improved relations across a range of issues, including Iran, Afghanistan, and fighting terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons. It will be more willing than the Bush administration to engage in arms control talks, especially to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires at the end of this year. But Mr. Obama has given no signs of being less alarmed than was President George W. Bush about Iran's nuclear program and certainly has shown no willingness to acquiesce in the "privileged" position that Mr. Medvedev claims over his neighbors.
On the contrary, at the same time that Vice President Biden introduced the "reset" concept, in a speech in February in Munich, he also repudiated the concept of spheres of influence. And after meeting with the secretary general of NATO last Wednesday, Mr. Obama reiterated the point. "My administration is seeking a reset of the relationship with Russia," the president said, "but . . . we are going to continue to abide by the central belief that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO." The message: Georgia and Ukraine, former Soviet republics, should be free to form and join alliances as they choose, notwithstanding Russia's vitriolic objections.
The administration believes, in other words, that it can develop constructive relations with Russia without sacrificing the interests of Russia's neighbors. Whether such a reset will be acceptable to Mr. Medvedev or to Russia's de facto top ruler, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, remains to be seen.
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