The Kremlin is pleased with the outcome of the U.S. presidential vote. Barack Obama’s re-election means predictability in U.S.-Russian relations. There will be no ritual or real repudiation of the previous four years, no painful reassessment of past policies, and no abrupt change in the cast of characters. There might even be more flexibility, as Obama promised Dmitri Medvedev, on the thornier issues of the relationship, such as missile defense.
Yet, the relationship is in need of some heavy lifting. Unless the reset is followed by a rethink, both the United States and Russia will be getting less and less from each other.
A rethink would mean, above all, upgrading the relationship from largely tactical to strategic. In the last four years, Obama’s Russia policy was primarily geared to Afghanistan and Iran. Cooperation with Moscow has allowed the U.S. to ferry troops and matériel to and from Afghanistan across Russia: a big help, in view of conditions in Pakistan. It has also permitted a modicum of unity among the major powers with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Besides, Washington and Moscow succeeded in reaching another agreement on cutting their nuclear forces and in having Russia finally join the World Trade Organization.
This is certainly good, but not good enough. Differences over Syria and a lack of agreement on missile defense, and reaction in America to Russia’s domestic developments and the Kremlin’s counter-reaction, threaten to undermine the relationship.
As people used to say during George W. Bush’s first term, unless the U.S.-Russia relationship goes up, it will go down. They were right then, and this lesson must be learned. Making the relationship strategic would mean protecting it from being overwhelmed by disagreements abroad and special interests at home.
Does Russia deserve a strategic status in U.S. foreign policy? Consider the following. An agreement on cooperative missile defenses in Europe would make sure that the country with a nuclear arsenal almost as big as America’s would no longer have to be counted as a potential military adversary. Expanding Washington’s vision for the Asia-Pacific to include the country which has a 2,700-mile long border with China and the longest shoreline in the Pacific would make the “pivot” more realistic. Making sure that the Arctic emerges as an area of cooperation par excellence would require dealing with Russia, the biggest of the five littoral states.
Dealing with Russia will not be easy. It is not America’s equal, but fiercely independent; it is not an ally, but not a willing adversary either. Russia, however, is critical for the 21 century’s global balance — and that should not escape Obama’s attention.