Vice President Biden announced Washington’s intention to “reset” relations with Russia during his Munich speech in February. Underlying the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia is a recognition that, by the end of 2008, U.S.-Russian relations had fallen to their lowest point since 1991. The administration believes a more positive relationship is in the U.S. interest, including by creating the possibility to secure Russia’s help on key international challenges.
The White House understands that, in order change the substance and tone of the relationship, the United States has to move on some issues of interest to Moscow. It thus has offered to negotiate a legally-binding successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that will reduce missiles and bombers as well as warheads, a major shift from the Bush administration’s approach. It has indicated flexibility on missile defense, another major departure from the previous administration. And it announced support for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (though Moscow’s decision to enter in a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan will complicate the accession process).
More broadly, the Obama administration’s embrace of multilateral approaches to tackle key transnational threats, such as nuclear proliferation, pandemic disease and climate change, opens new areas for U.S.-Russian cooperation. By cutting their strategic arms, the United States and Russia can lead in strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Likewise, the countries share an interest in combating pandemic disease, which does not respect international borders, and in dealing with climate change, which threatens dire consequences on a global scale.
Moscow appears interested in improving relations, and by all accounts the April Obama-Medvedev meeting went well. U.S. and Russian officials are now busily preparing for President Obama’s July 6-8 visit to Moscow. The summit will offer a key indicator of the prospects for putting the U.S.-Russia relationship on a more solid footing.
We should look to the summit for three outcomes. First, both sides attach priority to the successor to START; the presidents will review the negotiators’ work and hopefully be able to approve the key elements for a new treaty. Second, the summit agenda includes a wide range of issues; the presidents may be able to identify questions where U.S. and Russian interests converge and greater attention would yield mutually beneficial cooperation. Finally, it would be useful if the presidents could agree on a structure to manage the broad and complex U.S.-Russian agenda.
The presidents will not change the relationship overnight. They likely will differ sharply on a few issues, such as relations with other post-Soviet states. But if Presidents Obama and Medvedev make progress on some areas, they can begin to move the relationship in a more positive direction. That will be good for both countries and will make it easier to manage the questions on which they disagree.