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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Medvedev Moment

As President Dmitry Medvedev prepares to attend the United Nations General Assembly and the G20 summit in the United States this week, he has an important opportunity to demonstrate a cooperative, forward-looking Russian role on several key issues. The timing could not be more critical. There are a number of converging challenges in Russia’s relationship with the West that urgently need attention from both sides, even though U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s declaration last year that it was time to push the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations has been followed by progress on Strategic Arm Reduction Treaty negotiations and U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision last week to ditch a European missile defense shield.

Iran is the most pressing matter for the West and Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assertion on Sept. 10 that “the sanctions under discussion … are not a mechanism to force Iran to cooperate” reflects continued Russian skepticism toward applying real pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. Whether or not this is posturing, Medvedev must reject the possibility of Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon. While Moscow may continue to suggest that Iran’s nuclear program is not a direct threat to its national security, the fact remains that much of the Middle East, Europe and the United States consider the threat to be material.  

Russia can achieve significant political, security and economic gains by positioning itself in a more solution-oriented fashion on Iran, such as by boosting international confidence in its economy and financial sector. Because the road to Tehran does indeed run through Moscow, Russia should view its relationship with Iran as a valuable piece of leverage to advance other core Russian national security interests.

Another key point in Western-Russian relations is Afghanistan. As the United States and its NATO allies face impalpable choices concerning their Afghan mission, Russia has at best played a passive role and at worst sat quietly on the sidelines. Russia can be more constructively engaged in the outcome in Afghanistan. Medvedev should recast the Russian posture from a zero-sum perspective of NATO success versus Russian weakness to a more collaborative role that addresses the pressing set of challenges in the country. Such steps do not require a Kosovo-like model of troop commitments but could include a more substantive offering of logistical support, political engagement and information exchanges beyond Russia’s current supply route support efforts.  

Russia’s positioning on Afghanistan should not be separated from the West’s role in the Russian “near abroad.” It is true that some Western actions have elevated concerns in Moscow about the West’s involvement in Ukraine and Georgia. Medvedev can use progress in Iran and Afghanistan to press the West for a more calibrated approach to its behavior in the former Soviet republics.  

That said, recent vitriolic statements from Medvedev about the January presidential election in Ukraine and from the Russian Coast Guard about Georgian naval movements off the coast of Abkhazia continue to stoke concerns in the West regarding Russia’s true intentions. Medvedev’s leadership could diffuse misunderstandings on both sides while providing a way to work together on Iran and Afghanistan.

Moscow’s continued commitment to improving the rule of law in Russia will remain at the forefront of the G20 discussions. Medvedev has made progress on the rule of law, a hallmark of his administration, and he will need to address this issue after the recent settlement between the Bank of New York Mellon and the Federal Customs Services concerning a Russian lawsuit on purported illegal fund transfers. This lawsuit was widely viewed as a coercive action by the Russian government. A meaningful affirmation from Medvedev about his continued commitment to rule of law reform, followed up by concrete actions in Russia, could go a long way toward ameliorating Western concerns.  

Medvedev’s participation in two international forums in the United States will enable him to positively demonstrate that Moscow can take a leadership role on these matters and provide Russia the opportunity to better influence both the global agenda and the outcome. By working through these issues, Medvedev will enable the West and Russia to firmly press on with the much-heralded reset in relations.

Peter I. Belk is president and CEO of Atlas International Partners and a former diplomat at the U.S. StateDepartment.