By no means are the U.S. and Russia condemned to fight. Their vital national interests don’t collide. Rather, on some aspects they coincide. Therefore, it is possible to avoid the paroxysmal tension between Moscow and Washington, which in the last months of Bush’s presidency was described as “the new cold war”. Both Obama and his Russian partners, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, are aware of this. Anyway, it’s a long road from here to an established and trusted relationship. Let’s see why.
From the point of view of the Kremlin, it’s essential that the U.S. acknowledge Russia as a strong power with rights and leverage on its sphere of influence. This should include almost all the ex-soviet land but also more distant areas, the once-called Third World. This claim hides a new architecture of European security, which follows the lead of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
NATO is both obsolete and dangerous at the same time. Obsolete because was an instrument of the Cold War. Dangerous because today its partners of the ex-soviet empire look at it like in the times of the USSR: as a protection factor against the aggressive Russian empire. Therefore it’s impossible to extend it as far as Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that Moscow feel as part of its own sphere of influence.
So, Moscow is asking Washington to stop NATO’s expansion in order to restore mutual trust. Also, Moscow asks to give up installing anti-missile systems in Poland and Czech Republic, which according to Putin and Medvedev are essentially against Russia. In exchange, Russian leaders offer collaboration in Afghanistan – most of all concerning supplying roads for the allies – and in Iran, as well as the possibility to discuss the reduction, if not the abolition, of strategic arsenals.
According to Obama, Russia is not an enemy, rather a potential partner, but not quite reliable. In his pragmatism, the Russians are useful to support American troops in the Middle East, as well as to save face and most of all the safety of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, Russian pseudo-democracy is source of concerns, as well as a lack of transparency in decision making. But with all the domestic and global problems that Obama is forced to solve, it seems unnecessary to add Russia to the list.
However, it isn’t easy to under stand how far the pragmatic approach, based on the realistic evaluation of interests, can establish itself between Moscow and Washington. Wastes of the past keep on poisoning mutual perceptions. Besides, the U.S. finds it difficult to reopen a dossier closed a long time ago with the victory in the Cold War, which means a painful revision of the past. The alternatives to cooperation are, without a doubt, less fascinating and more expensive.