Europe, Global Geopolitics, Global Governance, Headlines, North America

US-RUSSIA: Kinder, Gentler Tone, Same Policy Tradeoffs

Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Feb 21 2009 (IPS) - The relationship between the U.S. and Russia, which reached a nadir this past August during the war in Georgia, appears to have experienced a slight thaw during the first month of the Barack Obama administration.

Despite a few bumps – most notably the closing of the U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan under apparent Russian pressure – past weeks have seen both sides adopt a more conciliatory tone in their rhetoric. On the U.S. side, this dynamic has been driven both by the new administration’s overall aim of repairing diplomatic relations with the world and by a pragmatic desire to secure Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this rhetorical shift will result in substantive agreements on the points of contention between the two countries. Obama’s appointments on Russia policy so far suggest that more bumps may lie ahead; his team features several prominent figures with hard-line and moralised views of the Washington-Moscow relationship.

Obama’s relationship with the Kremlin got off to a rocky start. Hours after his election in November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave an aggressive speech in which he threatened to deploy Iskander missile systems to the city of Kaliningrad unless Obama scrapped missile defence plans in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Since then, however, the tone of the relationship has improved. In early February, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden gave a highly publicised speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he proposed “press[ing] the reset button” on the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Biden’s speech drew praise from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Moscow signaled that it could be persuaded not to deploy missiles to Kaliningrad. In turn, U.S. undersecretary of state William Burns suggested last week during a visit to Moscow that the U.S. would be willing to reconsider its missile defence plans in Eastern Europe.

But some observers question whether this warmer tone indicates any real shift in policy. Strobe Talbott, who directed Russia policy at the State Department during the Clinton administration and currently heads the Brookings Institution, noted that the Kremlin’s recent statements on Kaliningrad have made the same concrete demands as its initial statements; they have merely been phrased in the form of promises rather than threats.

“The tonality has softened a bit, but I’m not sure that the substance of the Russian position has actually changed that much,” Talbott said Thursday at a Brookings panel on Russia policy.

Indeed, the basic set of issues and tradeoffs that Obama faces appear to be largely the same as they were during the Bush administration. In return for cooperation on the Afghanistan and Iran issues, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are expected to demand that the U.S. shelve plans for the Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, along with the proposed missile defence system in Eastern Europe.

More broadly, Russia has sought an end to what it regards as Western meddling in its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, and an end to calls for governance and human rights improvements within Russia itself.

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has forced the new administration to seek cooperation with Moscow almost upon taking office.

In recent months, the primary NATO supply route through Pakistan has become increasingly insecure, leading the U.S. to seek an alternate supply route through Central Asia.

On Friday, the U.S. military announced that it would transport supplies through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but this route would require Russian cooperation. Moscow has stated several times that it is willing to allow non-lethal NATO supplies to pass through its territory.

This apparent willingness to cooperate, however, was belied by Kyrgyzstan’s announcement earlier this month that it plans to evict the U.S. from Manas airbase, a key logistical hub for the Afghan theater. Kyrgyz President Kurkmanbek Bakiyev first announced the decision in Moscow only hours after Russia agreed to provide his country with a 2-billion-dollar aid and loan package, leading most observers to conclude that Russian pressure was responsible for the base closure.

The U.S. also seeks Russian assistance on halting Iran’s nuclear programme, and has stated that its proposed missile defence system is aimed solely at preventing an Iranian attack. So far, however, Russia has shown little willingness to take a tougher line with Tehran.

Given that Afghanistan and Iran are the new administration’s top foreign policy priorities, most observers expect Obama to be more willing than Bush to make concessions in order to secure Russian cooperation.

Some of Obama’s appointees, however, may push back against any attempt to reach a pragmatic accommodation. His team includes several prominent figures inclined towards the aggressive use of U.S. power in support of democratisation, scepticism toward Russian influence in the former Soviet Union, and fierce criticism of Russia’s governance and human rights record.

“Unfortunately…a truly multilateral foreign policy is alien to the Clinton/Albright school of diplomacy – from which Obama has drafted many of his top advisers,” realist foreign policy analyst Anatol Lieven wrote in the Nation in January. “Hillary Clinton…as well as her and Obama’s key associates in the area of Russia policy, have an especially bad record when it comes to Russian relations.”

Among the most notable Russia hawks in the administration is Michael McFaul, who will direct Russia and Eurasia policy at the National Security Council. McFaul is known for a tendency to view international relations as a Manichean struggle between liberty and tyranny, and for his belief – set forth in the his influential 2002 essay “The Liberty Doctrine” – that the U.S. should be willing to act aggressively to overthrow tyrannical regimes.

In recent years, he has been outspoken in his criticism of what he describes as Putin’s authoritarian model of governance.

Other administration figures, including Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter and ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, have been vocal proponents of a Concert of Democracies as an alternative to the U.N. and NATO. The idea gained prominence when Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain adopted it, under the influence of his neoconservative adviser Robert Kagan.

Kagan has argued that the twenty-first century will be dominated by a struggle between the forces of democracy (led by the U.S.) and authoritarianism (led by Russia and China). His League of Democracies was conceived explicitly as a way to combat Russian power, and many foreign policy realists reject the idea as rooted in an overly moralised and confrontational approach to relations with Russia.

Thursday’s panel at Brookings indicated that the divide on Russia policy between Bush’s neoconservatives and Obama’s liberal hawks may not be particularly wide.

Kagan’s speech at the event was as hawkish as expected. He warned of “serious consequences” if the U.S. failed to punish Russia for its actions during the Georgia war, and accused the Obama administration of being “overly solicitous of the Russian view” in its dealings with Moscow.

Observers might have expected a more moderate stance from Talbott. He is a longtime confidante of the Clintons, and is expected to exert a deep influence on Hillary Clinton’s Russia policy whether or not he ultimately returns to the State Department.

Talbott, however, was quick to stress that he “found little to disagree with” in Kagan’s hawkish speech.

If anything, he seemed eager to out-hawk Kagan, warning that Russia’s proposed “compatriot” law was reminiscent of the justifications used for Nazi expansionism in the 1930s and suggesting that an authoritarian Russia was likely to be an aggressive Russia.

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