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Medvedev Outlines Path to Better US-Russian Ties

By Peter Fedynsky
31 March 2009

The U.S. and Russia presidents are scheduled to meet for the first time Wednesday on the sidelines of the G20 summit in London. The new Kremlin leader comes to the meeting with a record of policy initiatives that have swung between belligerent threats against the West to offers of cooperation with Washington.

Writing in The Washington Post on the eve of his first meeting with President Barack Obama, President Dmitri Medvedev says there are many possible areas of Russo-American cooperation. He says they include disarmament, Afghanistan and global finance.

But recently, Mr. Medvedev announced a strategic rearmament plan and offered Kyrgyzstan a $2 billion aid package that has complicated the U.S. supply effort in Afghanistan. Russia has also threatened to counter a proposed U.S. missile defense system in Central Europe by stationing its own Iskander missiles, near Poland, and has refused to rule out the sale of ground-to-air missiles to Iran.

Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of Russia in Global Affairs, says Moscow's apparent policy swings represent an attempt to strengthen its position in the U.S.-Russia dialogue. Lukyanov says one of the contentious issues on the London agenda is likely to be the proposed American missile defense system in Central Europe. The Bush and Obama administrations have insisted the system is aimed at Iran, but Moscow perceives it as a threat to Russia.

Lukyanov says the Iskander deployment threat was a rhetorical warning, which no one really planned to carry out - all the more so because Central European deployment of the defense system does not appear to be an Obama administration priority for the coming years and will, therefore, lose focus as an issue.

Lukyanov says the question of Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership - a matter of major concern to Moscow - can be diffused if the Obama administration downgrades priorities accorded to Kyiv and Tbilisi. He says the United States will never recognize a Russian sphere of influence in those countries.

Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, notes that a majority of Ukrainians oppose membership in NATO. But he says many Ukrainians and others in Central Europe consider Russia to be a frequent historic aggressor, which NATO can defend against. Trenin says the Kremlin also creates mistrust in Ukraine, where - as he puts it -Russia is often its own worst enemy.

Trenin says he thinks official and semi-official Russian actions and words that question the stability of Ukraine, its borders, and the existence of the Ukrainian state do not strengthen the position of Russia, and in the final analysis do not lead to development of peaceful, civilized relations between the two countries.

Sergei Rogov, the director of the USA-Canada Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says the prospect of NATO missiles in Ukraine concerns Russia no less than Soviet missiles in Cuba nearly 50 years ago troubled the United States.

Rogov says Iran already has missiles that can reach Russian territory and notes Moscow does not want that country to get nuclear weapons, though he doubts Iran is developing them. He says Russia agrees with the United States on most Iranian issues, but was opposed to the Bush administration's call for economic sanctions against Tehran.

Though he insists Iran's nuclear program is for civilian purposes, Rogov notes the importance of a new U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, or START, to prevent nuclear arms proliferation, particularly in Iran and North Korea. The current START treaty - a 700-page document - expires in December.

Rogov expresses concern that President Obama's START team has not been organized, which means the U.S. does not yet have a negotiating position. He cautions that there are big and unprecedented problems in signing a new treaty within six months because of the complicated military and technical matters involved.

In recent months, Russian leaders have denounced what they say is a unipolar world dominated by the United States. Dmitri Trenin says this does not mean that Kremlin leaders have any illusions that Russia can match American military and economic power. Nonetheless, he says Russian leaders felt the Bush administration did not treat them as equals.

"At this time, Russian leaders would like more attention from President Obama and also more understanding of Russia's interests and its role in international affairs," Trenin said.

Russian observers expect the United States to downplay human rights issues.

Fyodor Lukyanov says the reason is the Obama administration has inherited many difficult problems and must take a pragmatic approach toward solving them. The observers say Presidents Obama and Medvedev also appear to be pragmatists who are not likely to develop the close personal ties that characterized relations between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev or Bush and Putin.

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