Another issue is regional security. Next year's U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is ushering in a number of uncertainties in Central and South Asia. In post-American Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to increase their influence, even as Pakistan and India will compete even more intensely there. Russia's defense policy these days focuses more and more on contingencies along its southern borders, primarily in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moscow has been trying, with mixed results, to revamp and strengthen the very loose post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it leads, to deal with emergencies in that part of the world. A Eurasian economic union might help, but, to be successful, it will need to stay economic and voluntary. Americans should lose no sleep over it: Moscow's desire, and ability, to impose its will on these partners is small. The Russian empire will continue to rest in peace.
To many U.S. observers, however, Russia's efforts there are virtually indistinguishable from former tsarist and Soviet practices. Yet, the decade-long Chechen war, and the ten-year postwar recovery have resulted in a settlement under which Chechnya exists as a virtual state loosely associated with Russia. It is actually more stable and more prosperous today than other republics in the Russian North Caucasus. As to Georgia, Russia's military response to President Saakashvili's 2008 reckless attack in South Ossetia was strong, but also measured: Despite the popular belief in the West, Tbilisi controls almost as much territory today -- with very minor exceptions -- as it did before the war. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia and proclaimed independence in the early 1990s, although now, unlike before the war, they also host regular Russian forces. For the foreseeable future, both places are de facto Russian military protectorates. The United States and virtually every other country support Georgia's territorial sovereignty, so the conflict will only be resolved politically. Until then, it will remain safely frozen.
Moscow's biggest benefit from Obama's foreign policy reset has been his downplaying of the NATO option for Georgia and Ukraine. Since then, the domestic changes in Kiev and, more recently, in Tbilisi have de-emphasized the NATO accession option even more. Russian policymakers and strategic planners feel relieved: They no longer have to account for the possibility of U.S. power projection too close to their borders. In the South Caucasus, they are happy to leave Georgia to deal with its own problems, and only worry that the long but uneasy truce between the Azeris and the Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh may be broken. As Erevan's formal military ally with forces on the ground, and Baku's economic partner, Moscow has a stake in keeping the situation under control -- an interest shared by Washington.
The NATO enlargement specter out of the picture, Ukraine has remained an economic and geopolitical issue to Russia, but it has ceased to be a military one. The Baltic states may be perennially worried about their big neighbor, and some Swedes may implicitly use Russia as an argument in favor of increasing defense expenditures, but Europe has ceased to be a priority for Moscow's strategists. Their only significant new activity along the western axis has been the announced deployment of missile defenses to counter NATO's system -- in the wake of a failure, so far, to reach an agreement with the United States on the issue. In the best possible scenario, U.S./NATO and Russian defenses can be operationally coordinated -- with the Western system, while effective against third-country missiles, having no capability against the Russian nuclear deterrent. A formal treaty to this effect is not necessary, but a high degree of mutual openness is. If this were achieved during Obama's second term, it would amount to a real game-changer in U.S.-Russian strategic relations, phasing out residual adversity now rooted in mutual mistrust and allowing collaboration to gradually prevail.
Finally, as Russia's military reform progresses and its force modernization continues, Moscow may become a more equitable partner to the Pentagon in a number of areas, from search and rescue in the Arctic, to fighting pirates off the African coast, to anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan. The United States may indeed appreciate a solid working relationship with a country that, while being vociferously independent and straight-talking, is no longer expansionist and ideological. Americans should kick the habit of seeing mainly through the prism of its past experience with the Soviet Union, or through the optics of Russia's domestic developments alone. Obama's nuclear bid, to be successful, requires an updated and comprehensive look at Russia.