Advice for President Obama

Hard as it will be for Barack Obama to bring change to Washington should he become president, it will be harder still to bring change to Washington's relations with Moscow. But Obama will have one advantage: the true nature of the power-sharing arrangement between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin should be fairly clear by January.

The moment is in some ways auspicious. Russia and America will just be beginning their third century of official relations. John Quincy Adams first arrived in St. Petersburg in 1809 as the United States' first representative. And there is a nice symmetry in both young presidents also being scholars of the law, which could incline them more toward negotiation than to rhetorical confrontation.

There is about a 10 percent chance that the U.S.-Russian relationship will take a strong new positive tone and direction, an 80 percent chance that the relationship will continue pretty much as it's been -- rivalrous in some areas, cooperative in others, with a tone ranging from the faintly positive to the bluntly negative -- and another 10 percent chance that things could take a sharp turn for the worse.

Moscow and Washington will continue to be bound by the struggle to keep nuclear materials and weapons out of the hands of terrorists. But terrorism is not the only problem. Wars in the 21st century will most likely be fought over oil, food and water (already dubbed the new oil). Managing problems of energy, economics and ecology intelligently is the best safeguard against future hostilities.

Lately, Obama has been stressing the need for a far-reaching clean energy plan. He has promised to invest $150 billion over the next 10 years and to double the amount spent on research and development. In an effort both to speed that research and to improve frayed U.S.-Russian relations, a President Obama could propose an "International Manhattan Project for Clean Energy," with U.S. and Russian headquarters and with the eventual participation of Europe, China and others.

If no such grand project unites the two countries, as the struggle against Hitler did during World War II, relations in the immediate future will no doubt pretty much mirror the immediate past. What Russia wants most from the United States is to cancel its plans for missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe and to keep Ukraine out of NATO.

Russia's main bargaining chip is its influence over Iran. The price of a non-nuclear Iran may be a non-NATO Ukraine. Ukraine would never be in danger of invasion (the Russians had enough trouble subduing Chechnya). But other scenarios can be imagined. Under the legal-minded tutelage of Medvedev, Russia could embark on a vast project of national self-examination and reconciliation, which many believe is necessary and overdue. Past actions could be declared illegal -- the seizure of the Baltic states as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the murder of millions of Ukrainians during the Stalin-imposed famine of the early 1930s. But Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's "gift" of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of a treaty that brought Ukraine under Russia's control could also be declared a Soviet transgression and therefore not binding. That could give the large Russian-speaking communities in eastern and southern Ukraine cause to petition for secession, at the very least creating major dangerous instability in Europe's largest country.

This sort of worst-case scenario could be caused by sudden economic shifts like oil hitting $250 a barrel in 2009, as Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller recently predicted. Russia flush with petrodollars could be tempted into an adventure with Ukraine. Or the motivation could be the hard times brought by rampant inflation that could propel hard-line nationalists to power.

Viewed from this angle, a President Obama who ran on a platform of change might not want too much change in his relations with Russia.

Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred For Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."