Global Security Headlines

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Rocky Russian Road Ahead

Nice Try

US Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton met her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva this week to "reset" the two countries' relations.

The "reset button" (see picture) however was enclosed in a gift box with the Russian word for "overcharge," not "reset."

Thus, the first high level tête-à-tête between the world's remaining superpower and former superpower was a bust despite diplomatic niceties.

The road ahead for US-Russian relations is unlikely to be smooth.


Significant issues divide the US and Russia and to pretend otherwise is dangerous.

Moscow is a strategic competitor of Washington. The faster the new Obama Aministration grasps that reality the better. Cooperation will be limited.

The siloviki (literally, "men of power") is engaged in an ambitious worldwide energy gambit to gain more profits and exercise economic control over dependent trading partners as an instrument of its international policy. Russia is run like a giant corporation.

The war in Georgia is an extreme example as Moscow eyes the strategic Caucasus region as its backyard and wants to control the pipeline routes for energy. The yearly dust up with Ukraine over gas supplies reverberated across a shivering EU last February.

However, Moscow has a glaring weakness: the price of oil is a key determinant in its confidence and ability to pursue its aggressive economic policy abroad. About 85% of its income is based on the export of oil and gas. Oil currently at $45 a barrel is a problem for Moscow.

Rebuke on Iran

President Medvedev's sharp "nyet" (no) to President Obama on linking the proposed US missile shield in Europe to more cooperation on taming Iran's nuclear ambitions is a recent example of great divergences of opinion between Moscow and Washington.

If a nuclear Iran on its southern flank does not concern Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, it is very difficult to believe most other issues will as well. Again, Russia's complex economic relationship with Iran trumps cooperation with the US.

Review, not reset

The new Obama Administration needs deep thinkers on the future of US-Russian relations. A bottom-up review is required. Photo ops and symbolic gifts (with the wrong translation) show naivete at best.

Again, the new Administration believes on many fronts its unilateral gestures of goodwill and good feelings will be reciprocated by those whose interests it is not to reciprocate. Statecraft relying on the mercy of others is bound to fail.

So far, a rocky road lies ahead for Washington (not just in Russian affairs) until a clearly defined policy based on its social, economic, and political interests is declared and pursued. A policy based more on personality (the Bush way) than national interest is discouraged.

The secretary of state should study before taking the next flight abroad.

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