Amid the Middle East Upheavals: Russia’s Global Role and U.S. Policies Need Assessment and Attention

This week Vice president Biden, who first coined the “reset” phrase, visited Moscow to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.  On the agenda is the problem of the possible Russian role in and stance on the issue of regional missile defense. The proposed US missile defense shield in Europe is a system that, according to Moscow, poses a security threat and essentially wants a hand on the system and the trigger. Russia wants largely unconditional participation.

As a background, recently Secretary of State Clinton, in talks with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, said the U.S. was committed to deploying in Poland, in addition to the announced missile defense shield, new elements of the US Air Force, including F-16 fighter jets.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s special envoy to NATO, said the statement by the US Secretary of State raised new concerns in Moscow. “I think this statement will not be left without Russia’s most close attention,” Rogozin told the Russian Interfax news service Friday, March 4th.  Rogozin also stated after meeting with NATO Secretary- General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and US Permanent Representative to NATO Ivo Daalder on Tuesday, March 1st  that: “We will not tolerate a situation in which we would have to join an already finished product developed without our participation and without our opinion considered. This is not going to happen.” So the gauntlet has been thrown down. 

But much more is at stake. Russia has already caused a lot of trouble for the West, and its potential to do more harm remains. For example, they have opposed strong sanctions and actions against the Moammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, but they permitted lighter sanctions in the UN Security Council.  Soon they may have an opportunity to take up this issue again given the deteriorating situation in Libya.

In the larger picture there is a growing feeling in key Russian circles that the “reset” needs to be encouraged and that Russia has more to gain by cooperation than by being the “dog in the manger.”

There is no question that there continues to be a hot debate in the Kremlin and in Russian think tanks and media about what is the right approach to the West, and especially the U.S.  As in China, there are the hawks and the doves on this issue. The problem is that Putin has taken a very nationalist stance in the run-up to the presidential election in 2012.  Also some sections of the military are pushing for more funding, and like our own DOD hawks, use the “bogeyman” imagery to scare the public and decision-makers for more arms.

Biden’s trip is a recognition that America still has a larger interest to encourage a cooperative stance with Russia and to seek a possible mutual accommodation of interests and to integrate Russia into the world of responsible major powers who share the view of building peace and stability rather than seeking conflict and obstruction.

But it looks from here that we have some very hard convincing and bargaining ahead. The U.S. can’t permit a Russian hand on the missile defense button.  The question is whether Russian will be satisfied with some transparency and influence over the fact that he system is not aimed at Russian strategic forces.

Finally, there are other issues that need to be on the table. They include global climate change (Russian wheat crops could be damaged by such changes), cooperation against terrorism, membership in the World Trade Organization, energy security for Europe, peaceful resolution of conflicts in the Caucasus, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, follow on to the New START treaty including dealing with tactical nuclear weapons and further reduction of strategic weapons,  deactivation and destruction of stored nuclear weapons and materials, dealing with Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons, human rights and the rule of law in Russia, and not least a path towards cooperation towards solving the terrible deficiencies of the Russian society in areas like health care, transportation, education, and legal institutions. That long list shows how important the relationship is to all sides.

All of this is a large agenda, but it is a path both sides need to work together on.

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