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Strong enough for a 'reset' with Russia?

By Ivan Krastev
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who observed that relations between two actors really involve six "persons": each actor's self-image, each actor's image of the other and, finally, what each actor actually is. Under this rubric, the success of President Obama's "reset" policy with Russia will depend not only on getting U.S. actions toward Moscow right but also on getting insight into the way the Kremlin views the United States and its new president.

Unlike many of its critics, the new Obama administration is not inclined to view Vladimir Putin's Russia as a paperback edition of the Soviet Union. Russia today is not a democratic state, but it is not an ideology-driven tyranny, either. Russians are wealthier and enjoy more freedoms than they have at any other period in their history. Russian elites are no longer in the business of destroying capitalism -- they are in the business of enjoying it. The majority of Russians favor democracy, but most are also deeply suspicious of America's desire to bring democracy to their country. So any hopes that American pressure can bring democratic change in Russia are illusory.

Obama is also right to believe that Russia is more of a declining power than an insurgent power and that its recent revisionism -- manifested last August during its war with Georgia -- is better understood as evidence of the Kremlin's insecurity rather than its imperial designs. In the aftermath of the global economic crisis, the Kremlin is terrified by Russia's weakness and its irrelevance in the post-Cold War era. Russian officials are desperate to preserve the country's "great power" status at a time of major geopolitical shifts. As Putin said in 2008, "Russia will either be a great power, or it will not be at all."

So, Obama has good reasons to believe that a policy based on pragmatism and respect can win over Moscow. For the Kremlin, it is more feasible to preserve its great-power status in cooperation with the United States than in confrontation. The United States and Russia probably do not have common aims and dreams, but they have common worries: Both Washington and Moscow are concerned about the rise of China and are threatened by the rise of radical Islam. (Russia is the European country with the largest Muslim minority and is therefore most vulnerable to Islamic radicalism.) Despite its numerous weaknesses, Russia also possesses strategic potential that could be critical to Washington's effort to rebalance the world order.

Where this White House may be wrong is in its understanding of Russia's view of American power and its future role in the world. There are reasons to believe that President Dmitry Medvedev has decided to bet on Obama's success, but Russia is not only, or even primarily, Medvedev. Russian foreign policy is profoundly shaped by the Soviet Union's collapse and its aftermath. Russian elites tend to think about the United States today through direct analogies with the Soviet experience of the late 1980s. Many in Russia are ready to read America's difficulties in Afghanistan as a repetition of the failure of Soviet occupation of that country and to judge the political consequences of the decline of Wall Street as similar to the effect the fall of the Berlin Wall had on Soviet global influence.

For example, Igor Panarin, a professor at Moscow's Diplomatic Academy, has gone so far as to predict the disintegration of the United States in the next decade. His view is extreme but symptomatic of such mind-sets. In an article in "Russia in Global Affairs," Alexander Kramarenko, the head of the policy planning department of Russia's Foreign Ministry, wrote that "the current crisis in the U.S. falls in the same category as the breakup of the Soviet Union." Russians clearly perceive America's global influence as being in irreversible decline and American society shattered by major political, economic and ideological crises.

Obama himself is largely viewed in Russia as the American Mikhail Gorbachev, but Russians are less impressed than other Europeans have been with Obama's brilliance and rock-star popularity. They remember the Gorbi-mania that conquered the globe at the moment the Soviet Union was about to crumble. Russians are tempted to view Obama's global reformism and his progressive agenda as an expression of American weakness and not as an expression of America's regained strength and legitimacy.

What does all this mean for the "reset" policy? First, it means that Russians will not be in a hurry to respond to the positive signals coming from Washington, and any perception of Washington weakness will diminish Moscow's willingness to cooperate even in areas of common interest and common concern. It is not Obama's deference but his strength that can persuade the Kremlin to cooperate with Washington. Simply put, to persuade Russians to join him, Obama must first demonstrate that he does not need them. He needs a clear victory, whether against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear ambition or Beijing's habit of devaluing its currency. Obama must show strength for the "reset" policy to succeed.

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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