Ready for Re-engagement

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Barack Obama won the presidential election because the American people strongly support change in both domestic and foreign policy. Apart from the global financial crisis, the major foreign policy issues in the campaign were Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, along with oil imports. But Russia suddenly catapulted to a high-priority issue after the outbreak of the war in the Caucasus. The five-day war led both candidates to criticize Russia, and it became an issue on the campaign trail after the Republicans criticized Obama for not being sufficiently tough on Russia. Now that the election is over and campaign rhetoric can recede, what is the outlook for U.S.-Russian relations under Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev, both of whom represent a new, post-Cold War generation?

The starting point for re-engagement will have to be a recognition that the premises on which much of Western policy toward Russia were based in the 1990s are no longer valid. Three consecutive U.S. presidents tried to integrate Russia into Western security structures as a partner that would eventually embrace the values and interests on which these institutions were based. But Russian leaders believed that they were being pressured into accepting an agenda largely determined by the West -- one in which they were not treated as equal participants. After a brief rapprochement following Russia's support for the United States in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, relations again soured. Even before the August war, the level of rhetoric and verbal attacks was increasing while actual contacts were diminishing. There were few stakeholders on either side in the bilateral relationship.

The August war served notice that Russia will follow its own path in the international arena and pursue what it sees as its own interests independent of Western-defined structures and values. Moreover, Russia is prepared to use a variety of means, including military force, to repel what it considers illegitimate U.S. interference in what Medvedev has described as Russia's "privileged interests." That was clear from his state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday, where Medvedev strongly criticized Washington for its support of Georgia before, during and after the war. At the same time, he also expressed hope that the new administration will make a choice in favor of fully fledged relations with Russia. When the Obama administration initiates a new dialogue with Russia, it will likely be based on a two-track policy: cooperate with Russia where bilateral interests converge, but agree to disagree on issues where both values and interests diverge.

Russia plays a significant role in the United States' top foreign policy priorities, including counterterrorism and counterproliferation -- especially the Iranian nuclear program. Russian cooperation is important in finding solutions to these two major security problems. Hence Obama's call for re-engaging Russia in negotiations on strategic arms control prior to the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2009 and his commitment to finding more productive ways of dealing with Iran. Russia is also important in facilitating NATO's continued operations in Afghanistan, a war which will require more attention under the next president if the Taliban are not to return to power. These issues already provide a robust agenda for U.S.-Russian re-engagement, and they call for the establishment of a broader network of bilateral cooperative structures and a resumption of high-level contacts that were broken off in August.

Other issues will be more difficult, particularly the respective interests of Russia, Europe and the United States in the post-Soviet space. There are the thorny issues of further NATO enlargement, U.S. missile-defense deployments and oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia. In addition, there are the fundamental issues of the rights and responsibilities of Russia, the European Union and their shared neighborhood and of the U.S. presence in Eurasia. Yet if there is no attempt to create a structured and sustained dialogue on these issues, tensions and opportunities for miscalculation will only increase. Perhaps these questions could be included in the discussions on a new European security treaty that Medevdev has proposed. The United States and its allies await further clarification on proposals for the new European security architecture.

Of course, the global financial crisis reminds us that there are new security challenges that Russia and the United States face, ones that might provide needed and fresh opportunities for cooperation. The Obama administration is likely to reach out to Russia soon. Let us hope that the Russian leadership is ready to respond.

Angela Stent is director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.