Now that Dmitry Medvedev is the president of Russia, it will be up to him to repair badly damaged relations with the United States.
At the moment, Russian foreign policy experts appear too preoccupied with the question of how the personality of the next American president will impact the future of U.S.-Russia relationship. A current consensus is that Obama would be the best for Medvedev to deal with, with McCain being the worst and Clinton somewhere in between.
Sure, Russia’s obsession with personalities is a time-honored political tradition. But Moscow strategists should remember that even the personal affection between presidents Putin and Bush has not prevented the bilateral relationship from deteriorating to the point of a new Cold War (well, almost).
The truth is that it’s not the American president who defines the policy toward Russia (or any other country, for that matter). These policies — unless the country is Iraq or Iran — are designed by middle-level bureaucrats at the State Department or National Security Council whose decisions are heavily influenced by special interests. An argument could be made that the pathetic state of U.S.-Russia relations is more a result of the dedicated efforts by various anti-Russian lobbies than of any conscientious decisions made by Bush or any of his predecessors.
The good news therefore is that even President McCain won’t make things significantly worse. The bad news is that President Obama will be too busy solving other, more pressing, problems and won’t have time for "improving" the relationship with Russia.
With this in mind, I’d dare to offer president Medvedev three pieces of advice.
First, Medvedev should remember than no U.S. president sits in the Oval Office for more than eight years. The U.S.-Russia dialog must thus become immune to ups and downs of personal feelings and rely instead on a carefully crafted web of mutual favors. True, the Obama presidency may facilitate the emergence of an elusive "strategic partnership" between the U.S. and Russia. Yet the McCain presidency shouldn’t pull the two countries so apart that they wouldn’t be able to maintain even a polite "selective cooperation."
Second, Medvedev should be pro-active when dealing with his U.S. counterpart(s). The Iraq mess will last for years, depriving the American presidents of their ability to focus on something else. It will be Medvedev’s job to establish the agenda for the U.S.-Russian cooperation. The "U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration", a document signed by Bush and Putin in Sochi a month ago, is a great place to start selecting specific topics.
Last but not least, Medvedev should spearhead efforts towards creating a functional pro-Russian lobby in Washington. This alone has a chance of becoming a hallmark of his presidency.