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Due West: Obama’s “Flexibility” Gives Putin Edge on Missile Defense

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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The scandal that the Obama-Medvedev open mic exchange in Seoul created both in the U.S. and in Russia is somewhat staggering. Obama's desire to continue the “reset” policy is evident. He thinks of it as one of the few unqualified successes of his presidency.

The scandal that the Obama-Medvedev open mic exchange in Seoul created both in the U.S. and in Russia is somewhat staggering. Obama's desire to continue the “reset” policy is evident. He thinks of it as one of the few unqualified successes of his presidency. While he is obliged to follow the line of his predecessor George W. Bush on missile defense in Europe, his real foreign policy interests (of which there are precious few) lie elsewhere.

Despite the adoration he still receives in Europe, he is much less interested in Transatlantic relations than previous post-WWII U.S. presidents have been. That he'll be prepared to compromise when the time is right is not so very surprising.

He will have to face a much tougher partner than Dmitry Medvedev after Vladimir Putin takes over the famous green presidential study in the Kremlin. First of all, Putin doesn't like America. All the explanations that that his anti-U.S. rhetoric is just an electoral trick are vacuous. The man says pretty much the same thing at every opportunity: America has discriminated against Russia in global affairs ever since the end of the Cold War, encroaches on its interests in the post-Soviet space and elsewhere, foments regime change wherever it pleases and, if not for Mr. Putin's staunch resistance, would have imposed a quisling government on Russia proper. Whether Russia's president-elect believes the latter to be at all possible is a matter for debate, but the general perception of America as competitive and hostile is no doubt part and parcel of Putin's and the Kremlin's thinking.

Obama's slip of the tongue does indeed give Mr. Putin an advantageous position in ballistic missile defense (BMD) negotiations – that is if Obama remains in the White House. The problem for both sides is that the Russian-U.S. policy agenda is woefully short. And it mostly consists of disagreements: the mysterious issue of BMD, still flaring despite the fact that both sides have ruled out the possibility of nuclear war between them; the long-standing Iranian problem with Russia refusing to see Iran as a threat to world peace; and the crisis in Syria, revealing Moscow's and Washington's differing views over humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect. It seems that only on the topic of Afghanistan do Russia and the United States sincerely cooperate. Moscow sees the benefit of the NATO-led coalition fighting the war against the Taliban and thus protecting Russia's vulnerable Central Asian neighbors from an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism. In addition Russia receives significant revenue from the air and ground transport corridors it provides the Western alliance.

The list of problems would have been longer but for the Obama administration’s timidity over the rule of law, human rights and political freedoms in Russia. But bilateral relations will sink to new lows if Congress approves the so called “Magnitsky list,” banning several dozen Russian officials allegedly involved in the unlawful imprisonment and death of lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky from entering the U.S.

Actually, any steps by the U.S. administration that touch upon Russian domestic policies will be met with rage. Knowing that Obama wants his Russia policy to be his legacy, the Kremlin may well compromise on some issues (for example, gradually abandon its support for Bashar Assad's regime in Syria), so long as they do not concern the well-being and impunity of Russian bureaucracy. But with the protest movement in Russia gradually gaining strength, it will be increasingly difficult for the second Obama administration to pussyfoot around Russian domestic developments. As Russia changes, Vladimir Putin's rule will inevitably continue to weaken. The biggest challenge for any U.S. president, especially for Obama, may be to deal with a Kremlin that is assertive and defensive at the same time.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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