There are two major schools of thought in Washington with regards to U.S.-Russia relations. The first maintains that the principal impediment to productive U.S.-Russia cooperation is a "value gap" manifested as disagreements between the two countries on the issues of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. Unless this "gap" is bridged, the disciples of this school insist, any meaningful cooperation is impossible.
The supporters of the second school, the so-called realists, argue that American interests will be better served by adopting a quid pro quo-styled approach: the United States should get from Russia what it needs, while largely ignoring Russia's digressions. "Selective engagement" and/or "selective cooperation" are frequently used terms associated with this approach.
Writing for the November/December 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations' Stephen Sestanovich has performed a remarkable feat: he married both approaches. While putting blame for the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, in recent years, on the growing "value gap", Sestanovich still sees no reason why the two countries could not cooperate on important issues.
Sestanovich makes an interesting point by claiming that back in 2002 — in the aftermath of the United States' bombing of Serbia, abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and presiding over NATO expansion into Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — Moscow had every reason to be unhappy with Washington. Yet U.S.-Russia relations were at their zenith, with Bush and Putin professing mutual friendship on every occasion. What has happened since then, asks Sestanovich? Why are the recent developments – the recognition of Kosovo's independence, plans to deploy anti-missile defense in Europe, and attempts to admit Ukraine and Georgia into NATO – are being met with such a ferocious Russian opposition?
Sestanovich's explanation is simple: in 2002, the Russian leadership saw "value" in close relations with the United States and was ready to consider "disagreements" as secondary issues. However, since then, Moscow has decided that its partnership with Washington will never be one of equals "and that Russia would better serve its interests if it followed its own course." In other words, Sestanovich believes that U.S.-Russia relations have come to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War because Russia has chosen to withdraw from the relations.
As I argued a couple of weeks ago, recent statements by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, showed little indication that Russia wants back into the relations. Medvedev used every opportunity to publicly blast the United States for fomenting the August crisis in the Caucasus and unleashing the world economic downturn. Medvedev's hostile attitude toward Washington culminated in his state-of-the-nation address, on November 5, when he promised to deploy short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region of Russia to neutralize U.S.' anti-missile defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic. The timing of this statement — just hours after election of Barack Obama as new president of the United States — led to suggestions that Medvedev's message was intentionally unfriendly and even "provocative."
Surprisingly, in just a few days – and without any apparent reason — Medvedev made a U-turn. Speaking at a meeting of European business leaders in Cannes, on November 13, he spoke of the future of U.S.-Russia relations in unexpectedly positive terms. The "new" Medvedev defined the relations as "the factor of global politics", called them one of Russia's foreign policy "priorities", and advocated a speedy meeting with Obama. Sporting his newly-acquired desire to leave the troubled past behind, Medvedev observed:
"Currently, we don't have such problems and crises as in the past … when there was a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Everything is different. And Russia is different. Russia is not the Soviet Union."
Two days later, on November 15, Medvedev had another chance to opine on the subject — when addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Facing a civilized, if not overly friendly, audience, Medvedev gave a civilized, if not too substantive, speech, in which he again highlighted Russia's desire to build (re-build?) constructive relations with the United States.
There was a certain symbolism in the fact that Medvedev's appearance before the Council was mediated by Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State in Bill Clinton's administration (and former Sestanovich's boss) and a close confidant of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Sen. Clinton may well become Secretary of State in the Obama administration. If true, Albright's pointed, no-nonsense, questions for Medvedev could have been tasty samplers of a dish Medvedev will be served in just a few months. A dish called the Obama administration's Russian policy.