23 January 2013, 11:31

Is Washington about to opt for pragmatism in its relations with Russia?

Is Washington about to opt for pragmatism in its relations with Russia?

The imminent arrival in Moscow of Barack Obama‘s National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon – ahead of the President’s visit there later this year – just might turn out to signal an eventual breakthrough in US-Russia relations. As he embarks on his second term in office, Obama is now free to pursue a more pragmatic policy towards Russia.

Donilon’s meeting with Putin and the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, will almost certainly address the main sticky issues, including missile defense and further nuclear arms reductions. If the two sides are finally prepared to adopt a more constructive approach than has been the case so far, they just might be able to edge toward a historic deal of global significance.

This would involve an acknowledgement of the limits of US influence in the former Soviet Union and an implicit recognition of the long-term positive role that Russia can play there. Obama’s new foreign policy team, headed by seasoned pragmatists such as John Kerry, may be able to accept that far from pursuing “re-Sovietization”, Russia is, in fact, the only Eurasian power able to reintegrate the region and hence put it on a more stable footing. In return, Washington may obtain Moscow’s quiescence over its “Pivot to Asia” – that is, a repositioning of the US’s military might from the Middle East to Asia in response to China’s growing influence there.

True, Washington’s main concern is its relationship with China, not Russia. But that is precisely why the US needs to overcome its differences with Russia: should Russia, a nuclear superpower and key Eurasian power, swing firmly behind China, the US’s “Pivot” would become much more costly and riskier. Equally, Beijing, determined to preserve its image of “peaceful development”, needs its Russian neighbor to safe-manage its steady expansion into Central Asia and the Far East.

Should progress in this direction be made, the world might inch a step closer to a more harmonious relationship between these three major players. Beijing might perceive Washington’s “Pivot” as less menacing and, as a result, signal its guarded acceptance of that policy. A propitious environment might be created for the stabilization of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2014, which would help ease tensions in the region. And the three superpowers might start working together with a view to reducing the turmoil in the Middle East.

Of course, many will argue that entertaining such thoughts is merely naïve. However, the alternative is a further ratcheting up of tensions that would risk not only a dangerous military confrontation but serious damage to the main pillar of today’s global economy – the US’s relationship with China. The pressure of the global economic crisis – not to mention the US’s dire fiscal position – would, in fact, suggest that Washington has little choice but to swing toward pragmatism.


· History is often shaped by sudden breakthroughs and, more recently, by moments at which geopolitical “tectonic plates” shift. Are we about to witness something of this nature?

· Is Obama capable of adopting a pragmatic approach in the interest of global stability (thereby belatedly proving that he fully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him in 2009)?

· What concessions should Russia make to enable Obama to move toward pragmatism?


The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell,

Editor, Expert Discussion Panel

Professor, New York University, Prague

Editor, Consensus East-West Europe

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