Russian-American Obstacles Overshadow Obama-Medvedev Meeting

The United States and Russia can’t build a sustainable relationship without addressing core problems.

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Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and served as a political appointee in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.

When President Obama meets with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday in Washington, his administration will understandably focus on the improvement in the U.S.-Russian relationship during the last year.

But many, if not most, of the obstacles to a real partnership with Russia still lie ahead—and it would be dangerous to ignore them.

In the wake of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, interaction between Washington and Moscow had reached its lowest point in perhaps two decades. Since that time, the tone of U.S.-Russian diplomacy has improved considerably, Russia has expanded American access to its airspace to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the two countries have signed a modest but symbolically useful arms control agreement, and Moscow has voted with Washington to support new United Nations Security Council Sanctions on Iran.

These are important accomplishments—and administration officials would doubtless argue that there are others. Yet the progress in U.S.-Russian relations remains very fragile and could easily stall or even collapse amid new recriminations. That was after all the experience of the previous two American presidents, each of whom began his term in office reaching out to Moscow only to see the effort fail.

There are many reasons for those failures, including developments in Russia and mistakes in American policy. The principal problem, however, is that the United States and Russia have different foreign policy goals, priorities, and expectations.

Today, circumstances have minimized some of these differences. Since Ukraine's current government is uninterested in NATO membership—and many European governments are unwilling to support membership for Georgia—one of the most contentious issues is off the table. And since low energy prices have put heavy pressure on Russia's economy and government spending, Moscow has decided to defer its ambitions to become an energy superpower.

Other difficult matters have been put off as well. While Russia initially welcomed the Obama administration's decision to discard Bush administration missile defense plans, Moscow remains deeply concerned about missile defense. Russian negotiators insisted that the preamble to the New START arms control treaty acknowledge a link between offensive nuclear arms and defensive systems and, perhaps more important, Moscow issued a unilateral statement on the treaty declaring it invalid if the United States pursued significant missile defenses.

America and Russia are pursuing talks on a joint missile defense, but these discussions are not new and have long been hampered by disagreements over the nature of the missile threat; Russia does not view Iran as an immediate danger. U.S. concerns over granting access to its superior technologies have also been significant.

Russia's U.N. vote to support new but weak sanctions on Iran likewise papers over major differences between American and Russian views and goals. Many Americans see the current sanctions as the first step in a process leading to stronger sanctions (probably outside the U.N.) intended to stop Tehran's nuclear program or destabilize its regime. On the contrary, Russia's main goal is to encourage Iran to participate in new talks and thereby to delay new sanctions or other action its government sees as destabilizing.

More fundamental, however, are differing expectations about Russia's relationship with the United States and Europe. The global financial crisis and the resulting plunge in energy prices have renewed interest among many Russians in integration into Western institutions and deeper U.S.-European-Russian economic ties. But few Russians—except for those who are politically irrelevant in their own country—are prepared to pursue this course at any cost.

Moscow's policy will be decided by pragmatic and unsentimental officials who see potential advantages to a Western orientation, but are willing to pursue it only under what they see as the minimum conditions necessary to preserve Russian sovereignty and independence.