When President Obama arrives in Moscow today for his much-anticipated summit with President Medvedev, he should temper his expectations. A dramatic improvement in the West’s relationship with Russia is unlikely to take place unless the “reset” moment is accompanied by a change in mindset from both parties.

The “reset button” moment symbolized a fresh start between Moscow and Washington after ties between the two great powers soured from 2003 onward. The new U.S. president assumed office hoping to undertake a series of pragmatic, cooperative steps with Russia on issues of common concern such as stabilizing Afghanistan, reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and combating nuclear non-proliferation.

Indeed, Obama’s Moscow visit will likely result in an agreement on reduced nuclear warheads and perhaps cooperation on transport of NATO goods through Russia en route to Afghanistan. But as long as the U.S. and Russia fundamentally mistrust each other’s intentions, cooperation will remain limited and tactical rather than comprehensive and strategic. For real cooperation to take place in a world of shared threats, both Russia and the West must change their outdated mindsets.

The West’s mistrust of Russia is due in large part to the Kremlin’s increasingly authoritarian bent, its aggressive regional posture, and the enhanced activities of its military and intelligence services. The Kremlin’s recent foreign policy has convinced the West that Russia is a 19th century power occupying a 21st century world. Moscow’s brutal and ham-fisted tactics – from invading Georgia, to poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London, to cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine – hardly inspire confidence and trust in the U.S. and Europe.

The West has done its part in straining the relationship. NATO’s enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe fundamentally changed the Alliance. NATO’s declaratory policy that it exists in opposition to no single state is undermined by the vocal anti-Russia posture of many of its newer members. It should be of little surprise that the Kremlin feels threatened by the expansion of an historic adversary that grows both increasingly proximate and anti-Russia with each step of enlargement. Meanwhile, Washington’s misguided invasion of Iraq, its divisive support for Kosovo’s independence, and lingering military presence in Central Asia convinced many in Moscow that the U.S. plays by its own rules and cannot be trusted.

This mutual mistrust has produced a zero-sum, neo-Cold War mentality in both Russia and in the West that limits significant cooperation in areas of mutual interest. Russia’s view that states in its “near abroad” must pledge fealty to the Kremlin is as outdated and flawed as the West’s mindset that it can build an exclusive security structure up to Russia’s western border without provoking Russian outrage.

For these antiquated, counterproductive mindsets to be overcome, three things must happen. First, a new generation of diplomats, politicians and bureaucrats must replace the former Cold Warriors in positions of power in both Russia and the West. Medvedev and Obama offer the prospect of starting anew, but the enduring influence of Putin and his cadre of ex-KGB agents will likely limit fresh thinking on Moscow’s part. Second, Russia and the West must make the strategic choice that the complex and diffuse security threats of the 21st century are a common challenge requiring cooperation and not competition. Third, the West must make a more concerted effort to include Russia into the Western security architecture, rather than attempt to build an exclusionary security structure up to its borders. For that to work, Russia must decisively make up its mind that it wants to join the West, a choice it is yet to make.

Until this change in thinking takes place, cooperation between Russia and the West will remain limited and tactical, to the detriment of both. Obama seeks to leave Moscow having reaped the benefits of the ‘reset moment,’ which would be a positive start. But the ‘reset button’ will not be enough to transform Russia-West relations into a strategic partnership in the interest of mutual security and prosperity. That will require a change in mindset.

Jeff Lightfoot is Assistant Director of the Program on International Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. The views expressed are his own. 

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