How Tough-Talking Russia Sees Obama

Moscow lays down its political markers but doesn't want to upset business cooperation.

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Interactive: Obama Transition 2009

MOSCOW—On Wednesday, when many world leaders hailed President-elect Barack Obama's victory in the polls, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wasn't quite as effusive. He announced that he might station missiles in the western Russian region of Kaliningrad and point them at a U.S. missile defense system planned for Eastern Europe.

But Medvedev's stridency only extends so far—and evidently not to business. On Friday, he attended the opening of a St. Petersburg factory run by Detroit-based General Motors.

The relationship between Russia and the United States, despite the fiery rhetoric, is ambiguous. Trade between the countries is healthy, and cooperation in some areas, such as space exploration, continues. That said, there's no doubt that diplomatic ties hit a low point over recent defense issues, particularly Russia's August conflict with Georgia, and that Obama faces a growing list of challenges.

Most pressing will be the missile system and the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO membership, due to be discussed at a December meeting. The Kremlin is also pushing for a new deal on strategic nuclear arms reduction, since the current treaty expires in December 2009. In the long term, issues requiring Russian input include Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although Obama's inauguration does not take place until January, he'll likely participate in key meetings before then, including a November 15 financial crisis summit in Washington with leaders who will include Medvedev.

The increased tensions partly reflect Russia's efforts to assert itself internationally. It has laid claim to the resource-rich seabed under the retreating Arctic ice sheets, for example, and resumed aerial patrols over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Medvedev has said he is attempting to counteract what Russia sees as the excessive influence of the United States and create a balance in global relations, though this strategy is seen differently by some nations.

"We feel that Russia is trying to somehow keep the tradition of its sphere of influence," says Andrej Círtek, a spokesman for the defense minister of the Czech Republic, where part of the missile defense system will be based. "It has not yet understood that Central Europe is no longer a Soviet satellite or Soviet territory and that we are an independent country."

Obama has voiced concern about Russia's recent actions. "A resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region," he said in the first presidential debate with John McCain. "Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable. They were unwarranted." Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, was even more critical in his speech at the Democratic National Convention.

One of the most crucial upcoming issues is the proposed missile system that will have components in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia has rejected assurances that the system is aimed at states such as Iran and instead sees it as a form of U.S. encirclement.

The question of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is also looming. Russia vigorously opposes their accession, viewing it as an encroachment into its backyard.

At a NATO meeting in April, European leaders opposed offering the two nations membership plans, fearing it would antagonize Russia. But the United States was strongly in favor, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would push for their membership at a December gathering. That's despite Georgia's festering border disputes, which are a particular liability in an alliance whose members have mutual defense obligations.

It's unclear how much Obama will focus on human rights in Russia, where opposition groups have been excluded from political life. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice notably met with rights activists during visits to Moscow.

Taking all that into account, some experts nevertheless say that there's reason to hope for an improvement in relations. Judging by their biographies, Obama and Medvedev may be able to find common ground, says Rose Gottemoeller, a former adviser to Bill Clinton on post-Soviet nations and head of the Carnegie Moscow Center.