Europe, Headlines, North America

RUSSIA: Looking for a Handshake with Obama

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Feb 2 2009 (IPS) - Russian leaders are looking for new opportunities for improved relations with the U.S. under President Barack Obama, after a period of increasing tensions between the two countries.

Long before Barack Obama became president, Russian authorities have been opposing many U.S. policies toward Russia and the region.

“The main challenges facing Barack Obama and (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton in relation to Russia concern the contradictions between the United States and Russia over Moscow’s role in the post-Soviet space,” Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of The Heritage Foundation, a policy think tank, told IPS.

“Russia continues to perceive the former Soviet nations as belonging to its sphere of influence, while the Unites States believes these nations are fully independent and free to make their own choice, including accession to such transatlantic security alliances as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Thus, Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO and in a broader context – whether they will align with America or Russia – will be the main divisive issue between Washington and Moscow.”

Under former U.S. president George W. Bush, the U.S. has been pushing for quicker integration of the two former Soviet republics into NATO. Moscow strongly opposes Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO drive, fearing it would threaten Russia’s national security.

Volk says these disparities emerged during the Bush administration, and they are unlikely to find solution under Obama. “The question is whether Moscow and Washington will be willing to surrender their interests in the post-Soviet space. Thus far, this willingness is nowhere in sight.”

The Russian elite were not pleased by Obama’s remark in his inaugural address that “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Russia’s foreign policy today largely echoes that of the Soviet Union, and is designed to contain global U.S. leadership. Volk believes that “maintaining a certain confrontational level with the United States helps the Kremlin address some domestic policy problems – solidifying society in the face of an external enemy, deflecting attention from domestic problems and pervasive corruption, and justifying large military spending.”

The position is not entirely clear on the U.S. side either. “I don’t think that new administration has a policy towards Russia,” Boris Kagarlitsky, director from the Institute of Globalisation Studies in Moscow told IPS. “It isn’t even clear whether Russia is in Washington’s view an adversary or a friend and partner. And the situation in Russia itself will be changing. This doesn’t make it easier for Washington.”

A way forward is for “the proposed U.S. military build-up in central Europe to stop,” he said. “That will be interpreted in Moscow as a sign of goodwill of the new administration.”

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has reiterated his call that Obama keep his campaign promises on U.S.-Russian relations. “We will wait for the practical realisation of what we saw during the election campaign,” he said. “Obama looks like an open, sincere person.” But, he added, “Time will tell.”

Russia has opposed U.S. plans for a missile defence system in central Europe, and its support of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, but Putin said there have been “positive signals” from Obama.

Putin said there was much common ground between the two countries on arms control, the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan, as well as on the global economic crisis.

“We have heard and completely agree that we have much in common. We are ready for such teamwork,” Putin said.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also weighed in. “Naturally, with the appearance of a new administration we are counting on the development of relations between our two countries, as a lot of problems have built up in our ties of late,” Medvedev said at a meeting with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.

At a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hilary Clinton said she planned to work closely with Russia on economic, security, non-proliferation and arms control issues.

“The content of Clinton’s remarks was predictable,” Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Moscow-based USA and Canada Institute told IPS. “The new administration is abandoning the unipolar approach and we can see the outline of a concept that differs from the Bush policy. Clinton’s address shows U.S. willingness to establish good, constructive relations with Russia.”

Obama has said earlier that he wanted to “reset” relations between Washington and an “increasingly assertive” Moscow.

“We want to cooperate with them where we can, and there are a whole host of areas particularly around non-proliferation of weapons and terrorism where we can cooperate,” Obama said. But the U.S. must also send a clear message to ensure that the Russians are not “bullying their neighbours.”

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