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Is Obama’s New Love for Russia Built to Last?

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


There weren’t a lot of surprises in President Barack Obama’s op-ed in the New York Times yesterday.  The President reaffirmed his commitment to transatlantic cooperation and outlined many of the agenda items the Streit Council and others have previewed.  What did come as a mild shock to transatlantic relations analysts was the degree to which Obama used this op-ed to reach out to Russia.  The President  noted:

“For just as the United States and Russia have reset our relationship, so too can NATO and Russia. In Lisbon we can make it clear that NATO sees Russia as a partner, not an adversary. We can deepen our cooperation on Afghanistan, counter-narcotics and 21st century security challenges — from the spread of nuclear weapons to the spread of violent extremism. And by moving ahead with cooperation on missile defense, we can turn a source of past tension into a source of cooperation against a shared threat.”

Obama also discussed the proposed ballistic missile defense shield and Afghanistan in terms of the benefits it would provide to Russia.

The Obama administration has made a point to engage Russia, and it seems—for now—that this policy is starting to pay off.  Secretary of State Clinton’s famous “reset” button (or “overload” button, depending on your native language) set the tone for the administration’s Russia policy, which carried over to the START negotiations, which were successful in that both sides worked together to agree on a compromise initially mutually palatable to all involved.  Also, gone are the appeals for NATO enlargement that characterized the foreign policy of last Democratic president, and there has been little talk of defending the rightful sovereignty of countries in Russia’s near-abroad.  In words and in deeds, the President is working hard to ensure Russia is not threatened by the transatlantic community, and the attendance of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at the Lisbon NATO summit is a sign that Obama has been largely successful.

Yet Russian leaders have been known to throw their weight around, and there are many challenges that lie ahead in the newly reset relationship.  In the short term, it is essential that NATO form deeper ties with a host of states and organizations, including Japan, Australia, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.   Russia is an important piece of NATO’s outreach efforts, but leaders at Lisbon must effectively extend cooperation to many parties to ensure the alliance’s effectiveness.  Ties with Russia are important, but cannot be put ahead of other relationships.  In the longer term, issues critical to the transatlantic community, like rule of lawfreedom of the presseconomic liberalization, and democratic intuitions, have been a major barrier to partnering with Moscow in the past, and no one knows how much Russia will work with the Atlantic community on these issues in the future.  These values are essential to transatlantic nations, but Russia views Western criticisms of its institutions as unwelcome meddling in domestic affairs.  Thus, while Obama’s engagement of Russia is largely a positive step for both communities, as both have a lot to gain from cooperation, only time will tell if the relationship is truly reset, or simply waiting to overload.


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