Speaking in Munich over the weekend, Vice President Joe Biden pledged to “press the reset button” on United States relations with Russia.   While this has brought renewed hope for some, most observers are rightly skeptical.


WaPo editorial page editor Fred Hiatt makes the point that I have made here many times:  “Russia is acting more on what it perceives as its interests than out of accumulated hurt feelings.”  If it’s a clash of interests and not personalities, then it’s not so easy to reboot.

And unfortunately, it seems to view its interests as exerting or maintaining control over neighboring states. That’s why leaders here from Poland, Estonia and other Russian neighbors seemed more skeptical than Western Europeans of the possibility of warming relations.

Russia wants to derail a NATO missile-defense project directed at Iran, not because the deployment would threaten Russia or its nuclear arsenal — it would not — but because the system would be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic, two former Warsaw Pact nations.

It wants to keep Georgia and Ukraine out of the European Union or NATO, because both countries used to be part of the Soviet Union. It does not want Europe building a natural-gas pipeline toward Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea, because that would threaten Russia’s monopoly position, with which it enhances its political influence.

If such goals are at the top of Russia’s wish list, then a grand bargain may prove more elusive than many people, on both sides of the Atlantic, hope. Though a serious diversification policy remains a distant goal, this winter’s gas cutoff, the second such episode, seems to have convinced a good number of European officials that remaining at Russia’s energy mercy is not the wisest idea.

Our own Robert Manning made a similar point last week, arguing that “engagement” is not an end but rather a means: “What is at the core of Moscow’s grievances?  Do they want to be treated as a major power integrated into the Euro-Atlantic framework, or do they prefer to be an outlier needing the U.S. and its allies as foils as a source of regime legitimacy?”

Alexandros Petersen, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Energy and Environment program, agrees, saying, “Russia’s aggressive stance toward its Eurasian neighbors is not likely to change with overtures from the U.S.”  Instead, we should pick our spots, recognizing that the United States (and the West in general) have overlapping interests with Russia despite huge differences.  This is especially true in Afghanistan, where all parties benefit from “securing porous borders and combating smuggling, organized crime and extremist networks.”

He adds, “Obama must make it clear to Putin and Medvedev that cooperation with the U.S. comes with the trade-off of a greater American presence in Russia’s backyard.” While I think that’s right, realism requires recognizing that the reverse is true, as well.  In the short term, at least, much of Western Europe is dependant on Russia for its energy.  And the United States needs Russia’s cooperation in efficiently meeting logistical requirements in Afghanistan.  The price of comity in these vital areas of interest is almost surely going to be compromise on lesser interests, such as NATO expansion and the soverignty of countries in Russia’s “Near Abroad.” 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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