When Bear and Eagle Agree

     A significant warming trend is underway in Russia-U.S. relations, to judge by U.S. vice-president Joe Biden’s speech at last weekend’s Munich security conference and some encouraging developments that prededed it. There’s good reason to hope that a new era of rapport and dialogue has started, and that Biden’s hope that the two nations can “set the reset button and revisit the many areas where (they) can and should be working together” will prove to be more than wishful thinking.

     It was only six months ago that Russia and the United States were gearing up for a new Cold War, if not in the midst of it already. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice ordered the scrapping of an already-signed joint treaty for promoting civilian nuclear energy on grounds that “the time is not right” and U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad chalked up Russia’s intervention in Georgia to its being “nostalgic…about the loss of empire they had.” Putin, in turn, blamed Bush for the war in Georgia while his deputy general Anatoly Nogovitsyn said that U.S. missile-defense policy made it “one hundred percent” certain that Russia would nuke Poland.

 

     But a series of events this week suggest the start of a much more grown-up tone all around. Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov signed off on the missile defense shieldgoing so far as to invite the shield’s developers to use Russian radar installations in their final plans. As a good-faith measure, Russian officials further agreed not to follow through on plans for new missile launchers in Kaliningrad, a site whose proximity to Poland would have made Nogovitsyn’s nuclear-strike threat only too easy to carry out. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated his openness to reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal via a new Russia-U.S. arms-reduction treaty that would succeed START, which expires at the end of this year. And the Kremlin made motions toward cooperation, or at least non-obstruction, of the continuing U.S. operations in Afghanistan: For the first time ever, U.S. military forces will be able to ship nonmilitary supplies through Russian territory.

 

     The U.S. administration and its Russian counterparts do not see eye-to-eye on everything. Biden favors Georgia’s admission into NATO, even though Russia fiercely opposes it. In the long run, though, Russian and U.S. officials are likely to do a lot more agreeing than disagreeing. Consider what’s on the horizon: 

 

1) Climate change: Russia has been a Kyoto member since since 2004. So its leadership is probably very pleased with the new Obama administration’s vocal concerns about climate change, which include a promise that the United States will undertake major carbon-emissions reductions by way of a “new international global-warming partnership.” This partnership would, of course, need to improve upon Kyoto’s shortcomings, and ensure that both Russian and U.S. industries comply with their government’s goals – all tall orders, but the prospect for mutual progress is very much there.

2) Iraq: A source of tension during the Bush era, but now a moot point seeing as Obama-Biden are set to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2010. This clears a major sore spot of Bush-era Russia-U.S. relations, and makes possible new Russia-U.S. cooperation against the Islamic-extremist movements whose activities gravely worry Russian and U.S. officials alike.  

3) Israel and Palestine. The Medvedev administration officially recognizes Hamas, which makes the former a probably very ready audience to President Obama’s promises to speak to the militant Palestinian group “without preconditions.” The ingredients of an active and continuous tripartite dialogue are firmly in place.      

4) Iran. Russia is, according to Ivanov, willing to mediate future talks between Iran and the United States. Good to know, because is Biden is willing to have them. There’s no telling just what these talks may – or, just as likely, may not – produce. Whatever it is, it can hardly be worse than the status quo.

 

     Conversation doesn’t solve all the world’s problems. But the world’s leading powers can afford to do much more of it. It’s realistic to think that Russian and U.S. officials will be doing a lot more conversing in the next eight years; time will tell what those conversations achieve.

 

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