US-Russian relations: Tough road ahead

The past few years have been a very difficult period in relations between the United States and Russia. Problems remained unsolved and, even worse, mutual trust took a nosedive. As a result, both sides sometimes acted without thinking through the consequences, which were felt not just in the United States and Russia but elsewhere as well.

The recent visit of President Barack Obama to Russia was a first step toward an exit from the deadlocked state of our relations. In the run-up to the visit, many American pundits asserted that relations with Russia were far from the US administration’s list of top priorities. Here in Moscow, some have gone so far as to say that a “cold war is good for Russia.” Against such a backdrop, the fact itself that the visit took place may be regarded as a success.

It would, of course, be an illusion to expect major results so soon after the long years of stalled relations. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate what was accomplished both at the preparatory stages and during the visit. These first steps are meaningful.
They include agreement on a framework for a future legally binding treaty on reducing strategic offensive arms. In this context, reaffirmation of the interrelationship between these weapons and missile defense was a notable achievement. By accepting it, the Obama administration sent an important signal.

An agreement was reached to resume military-to-military contacts between Russia and the United States, which could make an important contribution to rebuilding mutual trust.  
On these issues, the US showed signs of a more realistic attitude. For its part, Russia took a serious step by agreeing to the transit through its territory of U.S. combat equipment en route to Afghanistan. Given the amount of cargo involved, this agreement required settling a number of difficult technical and legal issues. The fact that they were resolved shows readiness to fight terrorism by deeds, and not just words.

These first agreements are important. No less consequential were statements made by the two leaders during the visit. President Obama said the US would not try to unilaterally solve priority problems, like combating violent extremism and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

In his keynote speech, he said the US wanted to work with Russia bilaterally as well as together in third countries. That point was noted here, for there is a great deal of lingering mutual mistrust as to the two countries’ intentions, particularly in what is called “the post-Soviet space.” Changing such attitudes will be difficult, but a start must be made somewhere.

Relations in Europe

As I see it, one area where the United States and Russia could engage each other in a useful dialogue is relations in Europe. This could help flesh out the idea, put forward by President Dmitry Medvedev, for a new pan-European security treaty. Indeed, the structure of security in Europe can be designed only if our two nations are among its architects. A serious dialogue is therefore in order.

As part of his visit to Moscow, President Obama made a special effort to engage a broad cross-section of Russian society. He showed an ability to listen and sought to persuade his listeners that our two nations have shared interests and compatible values. I hope the president’s contacts with the Russian public will contribute to a better understanding of the environment in which our country is making its transition to democracy.

To sum up: There is clearly a more favorable atmosphere between the two countries, as well as some initial results from this first meeting. As they say, well begun, half done. But I know from experience how difficult the other half can be.

So now comes the hard part: consolidating the new atmosphere by following up in all areas of mutual relations. Success must be the work of both sides. It is encouraging that the two presidents will head a joint commission to guide and oversee this work. The new course in US-Russian relations will meet with resistance from various quarters. There is also the danger that the new relationship could be mired in inertia and routine.

The two presidents must exercise political will to prevent negotiations on important issues from degenerating into an endless tug-of-war. The results that could be achieved if they truly invest in a new relationship are well worth the effort. In a world where daunting unpredictable risks are mounting on a daily basis, Russia with its natural and intellectual resources and America with its power and influence must cooperate. The benefits will accrue to them and to the rest of the world as well.

The missed opportunities and mistakes of the past years are a legacy that will not be easy to shake off. But, as Russia and the US set off on a new course, its promise must be given a chance.

(The author, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its end in 1991, is president of the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies

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