Dear President-elect Obama,
Even though most of your foreign policy will be devoted to issues not directly related to Russia -- namely, the global economic crisis, the wars and insurgencies in the Greater Middle East from the Gaza Strip to Pakistan, terrorism and climate change -- relations with Moscow need to be high on your agenda from Day One.
Last August, the war in the Caucasus led the U.S.-Russia relationship to the brink of real confrontation, something the world had not seen in a quarter century. Tensions have eased since then -- the world economic crisis being a "saving grace" -- but the fundamental problem remains. Moscow is unhappy with U.S. policies that are implemented so close to Russia's borders, and the Kremlin's sharp responses make its neighbors nervous. Many people talk about a return to the Cold War.
Your predecessor's failure to "get Russia right" was rooted in the basic neglect of an important country. President George W. Bush's jovial camaraderie with then-President Vladimir Putin simulated -- rather than stimulated -- the relationship between the United States and Russia. The promise of a strategic partnership in the wake of Sept. 11 was mindlessly neglected because at the time preparing for the invasion of Iraq became the sole focus of the Bush White House.
Later on, what passed for a U.S. policy on Russia was often reduced to comments on Russia's domestic developments. The result was mounting frustration on the U.S. side over the inability to change things inside Russia, which was matched by the Kremlin's growing irritation over U.S. interference in Russia's internal affairs. More recently, the prospect of awarding NATO's Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia and plans to construct elements of a missile-defense system in Central Europe damaged U.S.-Russian relations.
Mr. President-elect, you have a chance, as well as a responsibility, to reverse the tide.
You have vowed that your administration will be made up of pragmatists with values, not ideologues with dogmas. This is a solid foundation for a successful and constructive foreign policy toward Russia.
Strategic arms, both offensive and defensive, should be your main immediate concern. With the 1991 START treaty expiring in December, you will need to move fast on negotiations with Moscow to renew the foundation for the strategic arms relationship.
Missile defense should also demand your early attention. You will need to decide whether a reconfigured missile-defense architecture, which includes interaction and coordination between U.S. and Russian interceptors and radars, is a workable idea. Remember that any U.S. missile-defense system that undermines Russia's nuclear deterrent will be viewed by the Kremlin as absolutely unacceptable -- and rightfully so. U.S. and global stability and security depend on maintaining a nuclear balance between the two countries.
The Euro-Atlantic security architecture is your next priority. In April, you will come to Europe to celebrate NATO's 60th anniversary. As such events go, there is always a temptation to praise the past successes. You need to move beyond that and recognize that Euro-Atlantic security will remain an unfinished business until Russia and its neighbors, including Ukraine and Georgia, are fully integrated within it. The idea that expanding NATO membership while excluding Russia is obviously not working. Seizing upon President Dmitry Medvedev's initiative of a European security treaty offers a chance to start discussing the hard issue so far avoided.
This is anything but a philosophical discussion. Anyone who has an interest in keeping Ukraine intact should support its tortuous but realistic efforts toward accession to the European Union, not on a crash course for NATO. But more important, you will be challenged to come up with a formula for a meaningful Euro-Atlantic alliance that includes Russia. The Kremlin muses about a Helsinki II. Give them an Obama I.
Depending on how positive and promising your opening steps will be on strategic arms and Euro-Atlantic security, you can count on Moscow's cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan. This is more about confidence building than geopolitical swaps. Right now, the trust level between Moscow and Washington is at a record low. Yet the United States and Russia share the fundamental goal of an Iran without nuclear weapons. Regarding your proposal to start negotiating with Tehran, you will want the Russians playing alongside with you to make sure these efforts bear fruit.
Afghanistan may well define your foreign policy legacy the way Iraq defined Bush's. You will need all the support you can muster, including from Iran. You will also need Russia's support. Moscow understands that the stability of its southern flank will hugely depend on what happens on the Hindu Kush mountain range in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. But Moscow is torn between giving support to the West and preparing for the West's withdrawal from Afghanistan. The latter would mean cutting deals with the Taliban locally and relying on China strategically. You can help Russia make the right choice.
There are many issues in the relationship, going well beyond global arms control and regional security. If Russia's principal goal is to modernize and integrate, the United States has enormous capacity to help it. According to a Chinese proverb, it is the sun that makes people open up, while cold winds force them to hunker down. In the next four years, Russia will continue to change; its transformation, more than two decades old, is still in progress. Sometimes it will hit a particularly rough patch, sometimes it will disappoint, but it will not stop.
One final thought. You will not need to aim for a close working relationship with your Russian counterpart. All too often, these attempts are treated suspiciously by the public and not adequately supported by the bureaucracy. You would do wise, however, to appoint an informal "Russia tsar" to direct U.S. relations with Russia.
As you take the presidential oath on Tuesday, please also make another oath to yourself -- to put U.S.-Russia relations at the top of your busy agenda.
This comment first appeared in The Moscow Times