U.S. and Russia: The Talk Starts Here

There will be disagreements when President Obama visits Russia. But both Moscow and Washington know the relationship needs mending

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NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP / GETTY

Display of force Topol-M ballistic missile drive through Moscow's Red Square in May. Russia is spending billions to modernize its military, depleted since the Cold War

It is not now as it hath been of yore. Summits between the leaders who live in the White House and the Kremlin once transfixed the world, as competing superpowers, ideologies and worldviews clashed. But when Barack Obama visits Moscow on July 6, it will be something of a rarity for the U.S. President: a rather dull trip. Obama will encounter no cheering crowds or overly excited local media. His hosts, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will be no more than coolly polite. The end of the visit is unlikely to be marked by grand declarations of friendship or announcements of breakthrough deals. Indeed, experts on both sides say the area where progress is most likely is in negotiations on the reduction of nuclear arsenals — the continuation of a process that began back in the Reagan-Gorbachev era.

Yet these are two powers which both straddle a continent, and which both have worldwide interests. Between them, let's not forget, they own enough firepower to blow us all to kingdom come. The Cold War may have ended nearly 20 years ago, but the way the U.S. and Russia deal with each other still matters.

Both nations want to find a new base for their relationship. They had a bitter falling-out over the weekend war in Georgia last August, when Russian forces invaded the territory of an American ally. That prompted intense criticism of Russia by the Administration of George W. Bush, and Russian officials remain deeply resentful at what they see as a refusal to accept that their military action was in response to intolerable provocation by the Georgian government.

It's now nearly a year since that spat, time enough for passions to have cooled somewhat. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have said they want to press a "reset" button with Russia, while Moscow, for its part, seeks a normal, stable and predictable relationship with the U.S. But neither side knows where and how to start. "Both are trying to figure out what they can get out of the relationship," says Coit Blacker, a Russia expert at Stanford University and former adviser to the Clinton Administration. "There's a lot of head-scratching going on."

What each nation most wants from the other is plain enough. The U.S. would like Russia to endorse and enforce tougher action to combat the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and to quit bullying democratic neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia. Russia would like the U.S. to recognize that it has its own sphere of influence in the "near abroad" — the territory of the old Soviet Union — and halt NATO's expansion to the east. More generally, Moscow would like some respect. "The Russians want to belong. They want to feel big," says Finland's Foreign Minister, Alexander Stubb, who has met with both Medvedev and Putin since Obama's Inauguration. "There's a sense of greatness in Russian history, and that's how they feel Russia should be treated."

Russia, to be sure, is not entirely dependent on a U.S. endorsement to feel important. In mid-June, it hosted two summits in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg: one with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes China and four Central Asian republics, as well as observer states India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan) and the other with leaders of the so-called BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China. Medvedev was the first foreign leader to receive Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after his controversial re-election.

Even so, there's nothing quite like a visit by the U.S. President to bolster Russia's status in the world. Moscow got an unexpected reminder of Washington's clout in its backyard when Kyrgyzstan announced on June 23 that it would renew an American lease on its air base in Manas, a critical transshipment point for U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan. That decision was a victory for the Obama Administration: just four months ago, the Kyrgyz government had said that the U.S. military had to go. More broadly, Moscow's ability to project its power has been reduced by the fall in the price of oil since last summer; nearly 20 years after the end of communism and the introduction of market reforms, Russia's economy remains worryingly dependent on commodities.

Concern over the economy, indeed, may be one of the few things Obama has in common with Medvedev and Putin. For on the core issues, the countries remain apart.

IRAN
A Threat or a Neighbor?

While Washington has watched Iran's postelection chaos with growing alarm, Moscow has mostly looked the other way. Medvedev and Putin made no mention of the massive protests in Tehran or the allegations of vote-fixing when Ahmadinejad visited Yekaterinburg. That's because Russia's interests in Iran have always been strategic. "Iran is a special relationship for them," says Eugene Rumer, a senior fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. "It is their entry point for Middle East politics. It's a country they don't want to upset." Equally, Iran has cultivated Russia. The mullahs have supported Islamist insurgencies from Lebanon to Bosnia, but not in Chechnya, from which Iran has stayed away, in deference to Russian interests.

Unlike the U.S., Russia doesn't view Iran's nuclear program as a major threat. "The Russians say, 'We can live with a nuclear Iran,'" says Rumer. "They don't want it, but think it's going to happen anyway." Rather than try to halt Iran's nuclear program, Moscow has offered to enrich uranium for Tehran; the mullahs have politely turned that down. Russia is skeptical that sanctions will ever persuade Iran to change tack on its nuclear program — fearing, instead, that they will just embolden Iran's hard-liners. And when all is said and done, Russia's leaders may tell Obama they just don't have that much leverage in Tehran. "Iran is not North Korea, and Russia is not China," says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "That level of dependence and influence simply doesn't exist."

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