Obama Should Engage Russia at Highest Level

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The odds are increasing that U.S.-Russia relations could be rebooted as both sides send positive signals to each other.

On a visit to Germany, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke enthusiastically about Moscow's hope for the new U.S. administration, pointing to positive signals from Obama on plans to reconsider missile defense and that the security of Ukraine and Georgia could be ensured through mechanisms "other than their membership in NATO."

In addition, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that if Obama canceled plans for a missile-defense system in Central Europe, there would be no deployments of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.

In all likelihood, Obama will freeze missile defense. "At a time of another Great Depression, Obama cannot justify giving Poland $20 billion for hosting a missile-defense system that does not really work," a Washington colleague told me.

It is unclear how Obama will handle Russia structurally. It is unlikely that he will appoint a "Russia-policy tsar," such as Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state. This would elevate Russia to a list of high-priority regions, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, which would require its own special envoy. There are simply not enough issues on the U.S.-Russian agenda to warrant such a high-level appointment.

Instead, Russia policy will be handled through the European Bureau at the U.S. State Department, headed by Phil Gordon, and by Michael McFaul, the senior director for Russia at the U.S. National Security Council. Arms control negotiations with Moscow, the area most promising in terms of deliverables but largely irrelevant to the real challenges in the relationship, will be run by Rose Gottemoeller, a highly respected former director at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

But Obama's challenge is how to engage Moscow at the highest level. He is reluctant to invest heavily in a personal relationship with President Dmitry Medvedev, partly to avoid past mistakes and partly because he suspects that the final say is with Putin. The Obama team is trying to figure out how to establish a proper channel to Putin without Obama's direct involvement. A Biden-Putin commission, which is under review, will not sell in Moscow.

The responsibility of handling Putin might fall on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a political heavyweight on par with Obama. This could make for an interesting wrestling match.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and PR company.