Russian-American relations face several serious challenges, the resolution of which will help determine whether the year-old "reset" initiative has any real substance or is merely a shift in tone. The latest challenge: The ongoing presidential election in Ukraine.
The elections have already seen Ukrainian politicians using anti-Russian and anti-American rhetoric to gain support from voters, something that is sure to intensify in the runoff election. This is nothing new, and once again, Ukrainian politics have become a field of competition between the U.S. and Russia.
Security is prominent in the anti-Russian rhetoric of the pro-western Ukrainian politicians. In demonizing Russia they try to portray it as a major threat to Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and, most of all, security. It's to protect Ukraine's security from Russia, those politicians say, that Ukraine must join NATO and sustain U.S. presence in the region.
The pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine attempt to gain favor from Russia by playing up the fierceness of pro-western political forces in Ukraine and saying that in order to deal with that, they need Russia's political and financial support.
In the past, both Russia and the U.S. have allowed election demagoguery to affect their relations with states in Eastern Europe as well with each other. How leaders in Moscow and Washington react to the rhetoric this time will let us know whether anything has changed in the approaches of the two states to solving problems in the post-Soviet space.
While Moscow and Washington have similar positions on a number of issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, both also have their priorities. For the U.S., they are Afghanistan and Iran. Russia's chief concern remains the post-Soviet space and its relations with Eastern European countries, especially in matters of security.
Russia prefers to share borders with stable political regimes with which it can develop friendly relations. Its strategic goal for the post-Soviet space is for it to be made up of countries that do not have foreign military bases in their territories and that are not part of any military alliances that exclude Russia.
Naturally, the attempts of Ukraine, other Eastern European countries, and the Baltic states, to involve the U.S. in the region only escalate tension with Russia. The Obama administration has said that it is ready to change America's position with regard to former Soviet and Eastern Europe countries, placing a particular emphasis on the fact that it does not wish its policy towards these countries to preclude better relations with Russia.
But U.S. actions tell a different story, demonstrating that its leaders still believe that Russia should subordinate its interests to those of its neighbors Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine and Georgia. The U.S. has maintained quite an active presence in Ukraine, making the country significant in Russian-American relations.
The U.S. and Russia have to radically change their approaches and find a common position on the matter, so that the nascent policy of "resetting," in its Ukrainian dimension, can become a real area of cooperation rather than a reason for renewed tension. In this case, both Moscow and Washington should make it clear to Kiev that they will not allow it to set Washington and Moscow on a collision course by using the superpowers to resolve Ukraine's domestic issues.
Russia and the United States once provided the guarantees of security and territorial integrity of Ukraine by removing nuclear weapons from its territory. Reconfirming these guarantees today could have a significant stabilizing effect on the internal political situation in Ukraine, helping to create an atmosphere of real trust between Washington and Moscow, and between Kiev and Moscow. This would be in full conformity with Ukraine's independence, with Russia's strategic interest in having a stable, peaceful and friendly neighbor that is not part of any military or political blocs that could potentially be anti-Russian in nature, and with the Obama administration's effort at a real "reset" with Moscow.