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Towards a Biden-Putin Commission

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When Senators Obama and Biden are sworn in next week, they will face immediate challenges ranging from the need to pass a new economic stimulus plan, responding to the Gaza war, implementing a new Iraq/Afghanistan policy, etc., with perhaps the most important being to lower the public's expectations for a quick turnaround. Indeed, with the gravity of issues at stake in Obama's first 100 days, I suspect Russia and U.S./Russian relations will not make the top of the chart, despite even the recent gas crisis. But while President Obama's plate will certainly be overflowing, this also presents a unique opportunity for VP Biden to begin executing less glamorous campaign promises, particularly in foreign relations. One of the most pressing is America's relationship with Russia.

American Russia scholars, including the Obama campaign's own Michael McFaul have identified numerous fields where increased cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is not only wise, but indispensable to protect America's strategic interests. They range from cooperation on nuclear weapons, to Iran, the European missile defense shield, exploitation/exploration/militarization of outer space, the Arctic, the environment, energy cooperation, the War on Terror, democracy building, and trade/financial cooperation. The Bush administration's record on these issues vis-a-vis Russia is spotty.

Sen. Biden's March 2008 article in the WSJ best summarized the last eight years of American foreign policy towards Russia:

Ever since President Bush infamously gazed into Mr. Putin's soul in 2001, Washington has used photo opportunities as a proxy for a serious Russia policy. The administration has airbrushed Russian belligerence and rebuffed some sensible Kremlin proposals, such as legally-binding extensions to arms control treaties. There has been little clarity on what the U.S. and Russia expect of each other.

The importance of improving U.S./Russia relations cannot be understated. While there are reasons to be mistrustful of political developments in Russia, most commentators agree that Russia and the U.S. have vested interests in avoiding further antagonism. For this reason, the U.S. has maintained public dialogue with Russia open even in moments of crisis. For instance, on the heels of Russia's Georgia war, top U.S. brass met with Russian generals to discuss security and related issues. Even in an election cycle which saw the Georgia war politicized, and under an administration which had little to lose by further alienating Russia, pragmatism trumped politics.

What form should U.S./Russia cooperation take in the Obama administration? And what is in it for Russia? I agree with several other commentators (and here, Lord Boyce speaking before the Select Committee on the EU at the House of Lords) that America can boost its lagging relations with Russia by reestablishing the famous Gore-Chernomyrdin talks in the form of a Biden-Putin Commission. A Biden-Putin Commission has several advantages over the current form of dialogue.

First, a Biden-Putin Commission would serve as a perfect opening chapter for Obama's campaign blueprint of engaging adversaries while aggressively defending American interests. America has always had vibrant diplomatic relations with Russia--from the 1930s with American Ambassador Joseph Davies, to the height of the Cold War, and throughout the transition period. High-level talks are old hat for U.S. and Russia; they carry none of the political baggage Obama faced when discussing diplomatic talks with adversaries such as Iran without preconditions on the campaign trail. If successful, Biden-Putin talks can thus serve as a roadmap for future dialogue with other nations. Second, the commission has the potential to actually change substantive policy. Russia's influence in the aforementioned areas of cooperation is significant; America does need Russian help, especially with Iran and arms sales. Russia on the other hand needs America to recognize it as a rational partner and to reincorporate it into the global community (read: to reverse the capital flight after the Georgia war and to resume the WTO accession process). More fundamentally, Russia (hard hit by the financial crisis, despite denying the damage) needs America to acknowledge it as an equal partner. This alone gives the new administration much leverage.

The commission would also arguably deflate Putin and Medvedev's recent wave of anti-American rhetoric. From Putin's point of view, this may militate against the commission. As noted by Russian historian Boris Kagarlitsky here and elsewhere, Bush's ambivalence towards Russia has played into Putin's hand domestically. How will Putin view Biden, and will he agree to the talks? Russians know Biden as a staunch but reasonable Russia critic. Biden's rhetoric on Russia gives Putin a sufficient measure of protection at home. With Bush gone and a new negotiator across the table, Putin loses no face in participating in the talks and revisiting anew many of the thorny issues of the past eight years. Still, is there sufficient pressure on Russia to participate?

As Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, Russia will emerge from the current financial crisis weaker and more inclined to work with the West:

Many Russian commentators have said that if the goal is to keep a hard-hit Russian economy in the international mainstream, adjustments in Russian foreign policy are likely to follow as well. They do not predict a complete change of direction, but a less confrontational, less ideological, more prudent, more resource-constrained approach to relations with the West. The need for such adjustments is particularly obvious where resources are concerned.

Russia's desire to be treated as an equal in the global economy, to gain a seat at Obama's proverbial table, presents an opportunity not seen since the collapse of the USSR. The prospect for a new Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission to support cooperation in the areas of space, energy, high-tech, business development, defense, the environment and the like dwarfs any other prospective development between the U.S. and Russia. Yet it is not without critics.

For instance, by June 1995, the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission also encompassed America's efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons from Russia; despite agreements with the U.S., Russia continued selling weapons and nuclear technology to Iran. Critics also argued that the high-profile commission detracted from established low-level diplomatic efforts, stifling conventional channels of negotiation. When the commission was effectively dissolved in 1998 with Chernomyrdin's dismissal by Yeltsin, few could point to actual policy achievements. The Biden-Putin Commission can be successful and avoid these pitfalls of its predecessor.

To begin with, Putin is no Chernomyrdin. Next, even among the critics of the prior commission, few doubted the efficacy of regular face-to-face meetings in establishing goodwill and garnering popular support for U.S./Russia cooperation. If nothing else, the goodwill manifested itself in greater business ties between the two former foes. The U.S. led the world in foreign direct investment in Russia and the CIS states in the 1990s. If nothing else, the Biden-Putin Commission can discharge the pent-up anger and distrust on both sides, galvanize popular opinion towards cooperation, and renew investment in Russia.