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It Takes Two to Reset

The Obama administration's efforts to reach out to Russia won't work as long as Russians don't take them seriously.

With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev due to visit Washington next week, Barack Obama's administration is seemingly anxious to tout improved U.S. relations with Russia as one of its primary foreign-policy achievements. The two countries have "made significant strides in resetting relations" said the White House statement announcing the visit, a reference to the widely touted "reset button" policy announced last year. "President Obama and President Medvedev have collaborated closely to enhance the security and well-being of the American and Russian people," the statement continued.

The U.S. line on the reset is that agreement between the two sides on issues of mutual concern will help build the confidence needed for the United States to be able to make progress on other priorities. The American side apparently hopes that the reset will help Medvedev, who, unlike his predecessor, seems genuinely interested in rapprochement with the United States, consolidate his power. In light of all this, it would not be prudent to irritate Moscow with attempts to remodel Russia.

On the surface, the U.S. administration would seem to have every reason to consider this policy a success. Compared with the open hostility of 2008, U.S.-Russian relations have warmed up considerably. The two countries are now working together in areas of vital importance for the United States, including containing Iran and working to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, and the concessions made to Moscow seem minor. In short, the pragmatic line followed by Obama's team looks to be effective.

The problem is that neither Kremlin politicians and analysts nor opposition Russian liberals see it this way. Many view arms control and nuclear proliferation as U.S. concerns with little political salience within Russia. As Sergei Markov, a Duma member and Kremlin mouthpiece, has argued, the reset is "not just about an agreement on START, but about the status of the Russian Federation and whether Russia is a great power or not."

The Kremlin is willing to help Obama try to earn his Nobel Peace Prize as long as he's aware that the reset is possible only on Russian terms: Don't meddle in Moscow's affairs; recognize its spheres of interest; and help with its economic modernization. The United States has fulfilled the first two conditions so far, but help on the third is not yet in sight. Moscow therefore must take a firmer line in bargaining with Washington: All concessions must be prepaid.

The statements from Russian leaders are hardly subtle. "I will not say we are opponents [of the United States], but we are not friends either," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said shortly before the signing of the new START nuclear treaty in March. Lavrov has also suggested that Russia might pull out of the treaty if the United Statespresses forward with its missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe.

Gleb Pavlovsky, an influential political analyst closely linked to the Kremlin elite, was even more blunt. "Let's not kid ourselves," he said last summer in a magazine interview. "Obama is no ally of ours. Remember, Obama has no support and is on the brink of an abyss. ... He needs us more than we need him."

We are dealing with two completely different ways of thinking here. Where U.S. officials see dialogue, compromises, and concessions as a means of embracing and winning over the other side, the Russian elite consider dialogue, not to mention concessions, to be a sign of weakness.

Is mutual trust possible when the two sides have such different perceptions of reality? I don't think that U.S. officials are naive. But if they are aware of the Russian government's guiding mentality, they should see the obvious problems with the strategy they have been following.

First of all, a return to the arms talks, and therefore a return to the mechanisms of the Cold War, is not exactly the best way to build trust.

There's also little reason to think that the reset will strengthen the hand of the allegedly reformist Medvedev. Kremlin insiders don't consider the reset's deliverables so far to be anything worth celebrating, and if the Kremlin fails to obtain U.S. agreement on any one of its conditions -- not exactly outside the realm of possibility -- the reset will be considered a failure and will only make Medvedev's situation more difficult. No wonder Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has distanced himself from the reset project -- he'll have an easy scapegoat if things go south.

Even Medvedev has taken steps to assure the public that he is no pro-American softie. Speaking in Argentina shortly after the signing of the new START treaty, he told a local audience that "if somebody is bothered" in America by Moscow's seeking a greater role in Latin America, "we want to spit on that." His "spit on that" remark led the Russian television news for days.

If the Americans do understand Moscow's motives and are aware of the above-mentioned paradoxes, then they are taking part in a flimsy facsimile of engagement. Partnerships in which the two sides willfully ignore each other's motives don't have a great track record. Obama need only ask his predecessor how the Bush administration's early efforts to engage Putin went.

But what if the Obama team sincerely believes in the Kremlin's positive evolution, Medvedev's commitment to rapprochement, and the possibility that simply working with the Russian regime will change it for the better? In that case, Russian leaders will likely continue to offer concessions on issues they don't really care about while taking advantage of Washington's lenience to bolster their anti-liberal and anti-Western political regime.

Washington may have won tactical victories with new the START and Iran sanctions, but it has created a new strategic challenge by helping to legitimize the obsolete Russian political system and convincing it that it can win any concession from Washington in the name of keeping dialogue going.

Let's hope that the United States has a "Plan B" up its sleeve to effect a real Russian transformation when it turns out the reset has not only failed, but has even had exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

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