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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Foreign Policy Thaw Before the Blizzard

A honeymoon is a wonderful time for newlyweds. But there is something even better than a honeymoon  — when a couple decides to renew their vows after a long and painful divorce. Something similar to this is happening now between Russia and the United States as they express their desire to start over again.

President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent statements suggest that the Kremlin is taking a warmer approach toward U.S.-Russian relations. For example, now Medvedev seems to be considering the possibility of cooperating with the United States to create a global missile defense system. In a recent interview with CNN, Medvedev said, “Two or three countries should not be dealing with anti-ballistic missile defense in isolation. … There are also the problems of North Korea and a number of others. So this defense should undergo serious changes and not add up to a small number of missiles that would reach our territory and not cover other distances.”

It seems that from now on, Washington intends to rely primarily on theater missile defense — land- and sea-based interceptors with a range of 300 kilometers to 3,500 kilometers — which is precisely the area in which the Russian and NATO militaries have enjoyed increasingly successful cooperation in the past. Medvedev also hinted that if Tehran does not cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Russia might support stronger sanctions.

After the unusually successful Moscow summit between Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama, cooperation on Iran and the plan to sign a new treaty on strategic nuclear weapons reductions in December, many were quick to announce that the sharpest thorns in U.S.-Russian relations had been removed.

But I would not rush to break out the champagne. If you combine all of Medvedev’s recent statements, it is clear that Russia’s basic foreign policy based on realpolitik remains unchanged.

Officially, terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons were considered some of the largest global security threats. In fact, the real threat to global security turned out to be globalization. Many Russians view globalization as a insidious U.S. strategy to dominate the world, and the only way for Russia to maintain its sovereignty and defend its national interests is to insist upon a multipolar world as a check and balance on U.S. hegemony.

Globalization also led to the marginalization of tens of millions of people in the greater Middle East. Those people mistakenly believe that Western civilization is encroaching upon their religion, values and traditions. At the same time, radicals from those countries use the technological achievements of the West to wage war against modern civilization, turning civilian aircraft into cruise missiles and the Internet into a propaganda and recruiting weapon.

There is a similar problem with nonproliferation. Regimes such as North Korea and Iran attempt to protect their national interests by blackmailing the rest of the world with nuclear weapons. In this sense, “multipolarity” has led Russia to align itself with rogue states and to provide them with weapons systems, civilian and military technology and political support.

Further, Moscow’s displeasure with globalization and the policies of the West is articulated in terms of a military threat to Russia’s security. Medvedev is practically the only European leader who speaks of a security crisis on the continent. As a solution, Medvedev has proposed an all-European security pact in which the principle of “indivisible security” is codified in the form of an international agreement, prohibiting any state or group of states from strengthening its security at the expense of other states’ security.

But the question remains: How does Russia define its national security? Russia claims in many different forms that NATO expansion is its main security threat, but it refuses to discuss the “NATO threat” objectively. Russia ignores the fact that since the late 1980s, NATO drastically reduced the number of forces in Europe, it eliminated all ground-based short- and medium-range nuclear missiles, and it has adopted a new strategy that has nothing to do with containing Russia. A case in point: In a Sept. 20 interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, Medvedev said in all seriousness, “One shouldn’t forget that NATO is actually a military bloc, and its missiles are pointed toward Russia.” Somebody apparently forgot to tell Medvedev that these missiles were destroyed 20 years ago as part of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush.

One possible step Medvedev could take toward redefining Russia’s security concerns could be to  work more closely with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who recently suggested that Russia and NATO cooperate on developing  a joint evaluation of existing threats. It would be a shame if Russia used this forum to claim that the main threat to its security was its negotiating partner.

The Kremlin was happy when Obama announced that the United States would shelve its plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Central Europe. But at the same time, Medvedev voiced new grievances. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, he said, “Unless we address problems such as anti-missile defense and the creation of strategic nuclear forces in nonnuclear armament plans, we cannot make any real progress in disarmament.”

When Medvedev spoke of  “strategic nuclear forces in non-nuclear armament,” he was referring to the nuclear missiles on heavy bombers and Trident submarines that Washington wants to refit with conventional warheads. The United States doesn’t want these non-nuclear weapons to be linked with the new treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The reason for this is that these advanced, strategic non-nuclear delivery vehicles are needed to fight battles in places like Afghanistan; in a strictly military sense, these weapons have nothing to do with Russia.

Thus, it is clear that the Russian interpretation of “security” is highly subjective. And the hidden agenda behind Medvedev’s notion of  “indivisibility of security” may very well be that Russia is trying to secure the right to veto any attempt by the West to beef up its security in response to actual threats.

Although Medvedev is confined by Putin’s powerful political machine, he is still making an attempt to bring that system closer to reality. Similarly, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in his first years in office tried to thaw U.S.-Soviet relations by moving away from Josef Stalin’s dogmatic anti-Americanism. But as the history of bilateral relations show, periods of thaw are usually followed by a deep chill.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.