The Obama Challenge for Russia

A message to Moscow: do not underestimate the new US President.

The Obama administration has put out clear signals to Russia about real possibilities for engagement. Many Russian commentators believe that the new US administration ‘needs’ Russia to help solve its difficulties over Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq. Igor Yurgens recently told a high-level audience in London that the letter Obama sent to Medvedev was unlike anything Moscow had seen out of Washington DC in years. The Russian side has leaked details of the letter that suggest that the US is prepared to drop plans to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe if Russia can help rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The onus is now on Russia to deliver.

It is by no means clear that firstly Russia really is in a positionto influence the Iranians and secondly that it wants to given itsextensive economic interests in the country and its desire to see acounterbalance to US influence in the Middle East. Lastly, there is thequestion of Iran’s gas reserves and the possibility that anyrapprochement between Tehran and Washington could upset Russia’spipeline diplomacy.

Medvedev is also actively pushing plans for a European securityconference to review and amend existing security arrangements inEurope. NATO countries are prepared to discuss the subject with Russiabut it seems very unlikely that the two sides will be able to achievemuch common ground since they have fundamentally different positionsaround how to build security in Europe. NATO wants to expand itsbottom-up approach of forging cooperative links between countries basedon common interests and building levels of trust and interoperabilityto the point where war between those countries becomes impossible. Thiswas the great achievement of NATO during the years of the Cold War whenit contributed heavily to transforming the historical relationshipbetween France and Germany. It has also provided an important platformfor stabilizing much of central Europe since the early 1990s.

Russia bycontrast is more interested in returning to an old-fashioned model ofgreat power politics where a small number of leading countriesestablish the rules of the game for all states, large and small, andwhere the big players are entitled to spheres of influence. As aresult, it is going to be very interesting to see whether Russia canbring any innovative ideas to the table. As General Craddock, SupremeAllied Commander in Europe said this week, Russia wants to weakenexisting security arrangements in Europe.

The Obama administration is playing a clever game by puttingresponsibility on Russia to demonstrate new thinking. Watch this space!