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Russian US Hostility Has Many Sources

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by Greg Austin
Brussels (UPI) Nov 19, 2008
Russia sees new threats from NATO and the United States, and they see new threats from Russia. And even where they see common dangers -- as in the case of potential and actual missile threats from Asia and the Middle East -- they cannot find common ground on how to deal with them. How do we reverse this steady escalation of tension and confrontation?

The growing hostility has many sources. The atmospherics and style of bilateral diplomacy between Russia and the United States are hostage to an emotional climate quite incompatible with the needs of pragmatic diplomacy. And, for a mix of domestic and international political reasons, neither side has as much of an eye on mutual security as it claims. There is an ideological clash between U.S. views of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (as the zone of democracies) and Russian views of its relationship with its periphery countries (as a web of quasi-permanent national and historical relationships from which Russia feels it cannot easily extricate itself nor is it emotionally predisposed to do so).

Unfortunately, both sides will find it difficult to back down from their current positions.

The Barack Obama campaign Web site labeled Russia "increasingly autocratic and bellicose." But at the same time, it promised a new style of diplomacy and talking through problems. "The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don't like," stated the Web site. "Not talking doesn't make us look tough -- it makes us look arrogant, it denies us opportunities to make progress, and it makes it harder for America to rally international support for our leadership."

The president-elect has promised a new comprehensive, vigorous and integrated Russia strategy that encompasses the entire region: "Russia today is not the Soviet Union, and we are not returning to the Cold War. Retrofitting outdated 20th century thinking to address this new 21st century challenge will not advance American national interests."

This is what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has asked for. But by threatening, within hours of Obama's victory, a Russian military response to the deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe, he won few new friends in Washington.

"Establishing a new global security regime is grossly overdue," Medvedev said. "And it is especially important that we achieve results in the North Atlantic territory that comprises Russia, the European Union and the United States." He linked this to progress on bilateral arms reductions.

There may be quick common ground to be found on a pause to the deployment of ballistic missile defense assets in Europe.

Last month Michael McFaul, Obama's key adviser on relations with Russia, told Bloomberg News that Obama would pursue talks with Russia on this issue differently from the Bush administration. McFaul criticized the unilateral approach that the current administration had pursued at the expense of Russia's stated security interests.

The window of opportunity may be present in the way Obama has framed his position on the missile defense system. According to McFaul, Obama "will support the missile defense plan if it works and if it can be financially feasible. Those are two big preconditions."

This set of issues can be handled effectively at the official level. The opening groundwork already has been laid by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen -- who may become one of Obama's principal Russia security policy advisers. At the height of the Russian-Georgian controversy, and in the midst of an election campaign, Mullen took the unusual step of meeting with his new Russian counterpart, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, in Helsinki. Despite the unprecedented character of the meeting, Mullen almost certainly had the full support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates for it.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., is likely to be another voice to whom Obama will listen on the issue. According to blogger and foreign policy expert Steve Clemons, he has regularly "opposed false trade-offs between embracing Eastern European nations (and even helping to create new ones) and Russia's serious national priorities." It is in my view likely that the Gates/Mullen/Hagel view of how to deal with Russia will be in the ascendancy in an Obama administration, despite campaign rhetoric and recent events in Georgia.

(Part 3: Obstacles to improvement in U.S.-Russian relations)

(Greg Austin has a 30-year career in international affairs, including senior posts in academia and government, and is the author of several highly reviewed books on international security. He is vice president for policy innovation at the EastWest Institute, which first published a version of this article.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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