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What Next in Russia?

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Vice President Joe Biden's Munich speech a few weeks ago talked about "resetting" relations with Russia. So does this augur a whole new moment in Russo-American relations? Are we on the cusp of a major international perestroika after years of worsening relations with Russia?

We fiction writers have recently put Russia back into its role as a novelist's favorite fierce antagonist. Recent offerings like Daniel Silva's Moscow Rules, Ted Bell's Tsar, and my own Pipeline reassign Russia its place of concern for political leaders, intelligence agencies and military planners. It would be a pity for them to take all that away.

That Russia provides good book material is no surprise. The non-fiction Russia uses natural resources for coercion. It militarily overwhelms a small neighbor. Crushes domestic dissension through physical or psychological intimidation. It suffers from near-obsessive mistrust of foreigners' intentions. Oligarchs and Kremlin bureaucrats are locked in a maze of corruption, mafia and violence.

So, how does America reconcile this reality with its foreign policy needs? A new era of Glasnost across the Bering Strait is by no means assured with an autocratic state spinning into economic chaos. But there is no choice but to try.

As it considers its options with Russia, the new administration must wrestle with two potentially contradictory considerations. On the one hand, no matter how good the fodder for fiction, Washington must "reset" relations that have gone badly off track with this prominent nuclear-tipped, 11 time-zone behemoth. On the other hand, events in the financial and energy markets may have inadvertently exposed an uncomfortable quandary: Does the New Russia actually matter all that much?

As demand and prices for its commodities soared, Russia has gotten rich without making much of anything. When is the last time you bought something with a 'Made in Russia' label? No textiles. No computers. No cars of any worth. No refrigerators or washing machines. No services. Even Stolichnaya is now bottled in Latvia.

Depressed energy prices and weak demand means that petro-states have lost the saber they used to rattle. As the Kremlin's finances flounder, some see a possibility that Vladmir Putin could even lose his hold on power -- but not before Putin's Siloviki (security bureaucrats) apparatus fights tooth and nail to hang on to money and clout.

Worsening matters for Russia, western environmental and national security concerns are accelerating technologies that could reduce the west's dependence on hydrocarbons. When the United States announces a serious conservation policy that reduces fossil fuel consumption -- and with President Barack Obama this will happen -- Moscow could find its long term geostrategic position increasingly eroded.

Yet, notwithstanding its difficulties, let's remember that engaging Russia is better policy than the previous administration's pinballing between infatuation and thoughtless antagonism. Yes, Moscow hasn't exactly been a reliable ally. But as Professor Dimitri Simes says: "Nor has it acted like an enemy, much less an enemy with global ambitions and a hostile and messianic ideology."

It is clear now that the Bush administration's desire to place advanced warning missile defense systems so close to Russia's borders was a miscalculation. Similarly mistaken was the willy-nilly rhetoric of NATO expansion.

At a time of so many competing financial, military and political priorities, U.S. policy must first and foremost prevent Russia's return to the top of America's international worries. US policy needs breathing space to tackle priority number one: the growing arc of Mideast violence from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush.

Perhaps the place to start is to communicate a willingness to revisit missile defense. Iran's early February satellite launch may now have impeded the removal of the Polish-based anti-missile sites. But the United States can agree to provide Russia ongoing, verifiable reassurances that the systems will remain directed at "rogue states" and have nothing at all to do with Russia.

Given the regime in Moscow, this is a relationship fraught with difficulty. The United States needs to demand clear results: meaningful cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue, anti-terrorism, non-proliferation and the spread of nuclear materials.

So far, signs are not encouraging. Russians convinced Kyrgyzstan to abrogate a U.S. airbase agreement vital to U.S operations in Afghanistan. Anti-Georgian rhetoric is rising furiously. The choking of press freedoms and internal dissent is accelerating.

Perhaps we authors will get to keep our novelistic foe? Let's hope not. The world would benefit greatly from our loss.