Russian-American Relations in Search of a Proper Balance

07/17/2010 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is the full version of the article, published in the National Interest on-line on 07/15/2010

The recent summit in Washington, DC and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tour of the Eastern European countries and the post-Soviet space that followed the Summit give us an opportunity to evaluate the current state and the immediate prospects for the evolution of Russian-American relations.

Upon its arrival in the office the new Obama administration declared its course aimed at "resetting" the relations between the United States and Russia. According to its architects, the main component of this "resetting" was improving the relations with Russia, which was not to be achieved at the expense of worsening Washington's relations with its Eastern European partners and the countries of the post-Soviet space having pro-West orientation and aiming to join NATO or the European Union.

After the successful Moscow summit, going beyond just verbal declarations, the US administration sent Vice President Biden to the countries of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space with a mission to clarify Washington's new policy there, right on the spot, and to convince the allies that the improving relations with Russia did not mean that the countries of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space would be handed over to Russia on a silver platter, or that giving up the idea of placing anti-missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland and abandoning further expansion of NATO by inviting Ukraine and Georgia into the club, did not mean that the United States would be giving Russia a carte blanche in the relations with those states.

John Biden's visit was somewhat scandalous: it was taking place when the policy of "resetting" had just been declared and was yet devoid of any real substance. Many people, both in Moscow and in Washington, were skeptical about the prospects of that policy. It was yet to be tested by the upcoming elections in Ukraine, the US-sponsored resolution of the UN Security Council on Iran, the level of US-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and a number of other challenges related to international politics on which the respective stands of the United States and Russia often significantly diverged. It may have been for that specific reason that Vice President Biden was less reserved, less diplomatic, at times tactless and even offensive in his statements with regard to Russia and Russian policy vis-à-vis the post-Soviet space.

The second Obama-Medvedev summit held in Washington, DC took place in a completely different environment when the policy of "resetting" had already been tested by signing the strategic arms limitation treaty, when the Ukrainian elections, unlike the previous presidential election, had not become a catalyst in aggravating the conflict between Moscow and Washington but, on the contrary, manifested the readiness of the two countries to interact constructively in order not to allow the Ukrainian political forces to entice Moscow and Washington against one another in their own interests.

That summit took place after Russia had supported the Security Council resolution tightening the sanctions against Iran, and after the parties had displayed their readiness to work in a constructive manner on a wide range of world policy issues taking into account each other's interests and concerns. However, not everyone is thrilled with the current state of Russian-American relations. The Obama administration is subjected to serious criticism on the part of Republicans and neo-conservatives for allegedly giving up too much in favor of Russia by way of giving up the idea of deploying elements of the anti-missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland, turning a blind eye on the violations of human rights in Russia, giving Russia a free hand in the post-Soviet space and, in fact, agreeing with Russia's right to veto on the issue of the NATO expansion and on a number of other matters.

It was for the purpose of addressing such criticism and once again clarifying the policy with regard to Russia that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her visit to the countries of Eastern Europe and post-Soviet space after the Washington summit. Speaking in Poland, Kiev, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku, she tried to respond to all the critical comments made by the opponents of the Obama administration in Washington. In her statements she pointed out that the Obama administration was concerned at the human rights issues in Russia and China, that it was not indifferent to the destiny of the Eastern European countries, that it was ready to deploy an anti-missile defense base in Poland, that NATO doors were open to new members, meaning Ukraine, Georgia and other states of the post-Soviet space, that Russia had no right to veto NATO's expansion and the decisions of independent states to join military alliances, that the United States continued to support the idea of diversification of oil and gas deliveries to the West and therefore was in favor of the Nabucco project, that it was still actively engaged in the settlement of conflict situations in the post-Soviet space, including a serious and constructive involvement in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem as part of the Minsk group, and the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations.

However, it seems to me that Hillary Clinton's visit after the Washington summit is radically different from Biden's visit after the first Moscow summit, both in terms of its tonality and target audience. As noted above, the scandalous nature and tactlessness of Biden's many remarks resulted, to a great extent, from the lack of real content in the "resetting" policy, while Biden's remarks were addressed primarily to the Russian political leaders and the Russia public at large. Unlike those of the Vice President, Hillary Clinton's remarks were quite correct in terms of tonality and were addressed primarily to the American people and the US political circles - thus, they were intended for domestic consumption. This is the reason why Moscow's response to all Hillary Clinton's critical statements, unlike its reaction to Biden's remarks, was quite calm; this time Moscow understood that in fact the current US administration has made its strategic choice. Although no member of the Obama administration will mention it publicly, the choice was made in the spirit of the recommendations contained in the report prepared under the leadership of the former Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart by a group of experts at the Nixon Center. The report says that every country has "vital interests" and "interests", and in pursuing its "vital interests", in the relations with other countries one sometimes has to either sacrifice or pay less attention to secondary interests at a certain stage because quite often one set of interests contradicts the other. During her tour Hillary Clinton clarified the "interests" of the United States in that region. However, at the same time the Obama administration also defined its "vital interests" and its readiness to take Russia's interests into account in case of constructive cooperation between Moscow and Washington with a view of achieving its "vital interests" by the United States. This is the significant feature of the recent summit and the subsequent visit by the Secretary of State.

I believe that this is understood in Moscow, in Eastern Europe and in the post-Soviet space, and this is the basis of the Obama administration's new pragmatic policy which, in my view, proceeds from two very important premises. First, today, the United States cannot afford to pursue a policy of unilateral domination in the world because even such a rich country as the US does not have sufficient resources and therefore needs to look for partners and allies and take their interests into account. Second, without a dire necessity the United States should not increase the number of its enemies and ill-wishers. Although, we know that American foreign policy is not always conducted by pragmatism and political realism and not all members of Obama's team are in favor of the policy of "reset" and clearly understand the new place of the US in the modern world, I believe that current Russian-American relations have a significant potential of positive development in the foreseeable future. The policy of "reset" is not caused by personal tastes or preferences of the current US President and the new administration, but follows from the objective needs of the United States.