Even before the November election, there were widespread hopes that Barack Obama would help improve relations between the United States and Russia and stop the slide toward Cold War II. In the past few weeks, there has been some conciliatory talk of a fresh start on both sides - most recently, Vice President Joseph Biden's declaration at a security conference in Munich that "it is time to press the reset button" and look at possibilities of working together. Yet it is increasingly obvious that whether Russian-American relations will be friendly or adversarial is largely up to the Kremlin - and so far, the signs are not encouraging.
Thus, last week, some praise from high-level Russian officials for Obama Administration initiatives was followed by what the New York Times called "the geopolitical equivalent of a punch in the nose." Russia finally succeeded in bribing neighboring Kyrgyzstan - with $2 billion in easy-term loans, $450 million in subsidies, and the write-off of a $180 million debt - to kick out a U.S. air base essential to American operations in Afghanistan (a high priority for Obama). Adding insult to injury, Moscow maintained with a straight face that the timing of the aid package and the announced closure of the Manas Air Base was entirely coincidental, with no Russian pressure involved. In other words, a punch in the nose followed by the smirking assertion that your hands were in your pockets the entire time.
This Russian move may seem particularly baffling since the success of U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan is in Russia's interest. Plagued by tensions in some of its own regions with majority Muslim populations, such as Ingushetia, Russia has every reason to fear a victory by radical Islamist forces in Afghanistan.
Indeed, after the Kyrgyz decision to close the base, Russia quickly reiterated its own willingness to cooperate with the campaign in Afghanistan by allowing the transit of nonmilitary supplies to U.S. troops across its territory. Analysts saw this as a sign that Russia would allow the United States to receive essential support in the region, but only under Russian control. If this was meant as an amicable gesture, it was akin to the friendly offer of an icepack after the aforementioned punch in the nose.
It's too early to tell how much damage to the U.S. effort the loss of Manas will do, with Tajikistan and perhaps Uzbekistan stepping in to fill the gap. However, it is not too early to draw certain lessons about relations with Russia. In his inaugural speech, Obama told aggressive authoritarian regimes that the U.S. will offer a hand of friendship "if you unclench your fist." Speaking on the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, political commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky observed that there are many ways to unclench a fist - one of them involving the middle finger.
The Kremlin's geopolitical games, moreover, serve no tangible national interest, unless one counts a huge ego trip around the world - and consolidation of power at home. Vladimir Putin's regime, and its continuation under Medvedev, has sought to rally the masses with appeals to resentment of Russia's post-Soviet loss of superpower status and fear of foreign enemies. Last year's war in Georgia was meant to demonstrate that Russia was, in the language of Kremlin propaganda, "rising from its knees" and asserting itself on post-Soviet space. The clumsy muscle-flexing in Central Asia is more of the same.
In a time of economic crisis, it is an ego trip Russia can ill afford. The Russian military, despite its success against tiny Georgia, is beset by problems ranging from shoddy equipment and outdated technology to low morale. Buying allies is an expensive proposition in a time of economic crisis and plummeting oil revenues. Already, there are signs of growing discontent among the hitherto complacent Russian public. Faced with mass layoffs and budget cuts for essential services, Russians may balk at paying for the glories of a Potemkin empire.
Meanwhile, what next for Russian-American relations? So far, the Obama Administration has shown no sign of yielding on missile defense in Eastern Europe, a major irritant for Russia. Nor should it, particularly since Russian irritation has far less to do with any real threat - like, say, a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan - than with pride, paranoia, and propaganda. (Writing in the online magazine EJ.ru last June, General Vladimir Dvorkin, a former top-level Soviet arms negotiator, noted that even if the proposed missile shield were intended as a defense against Russia, it could barely intercept one in 1,000 Russian missiles.)
Ironically, Russia's crude attempt at saber-rattling by threatening to put missiles on the Polish border may have made Obama far more reluctant to reevaluate missile defense: no president wants to be seen as caving to blackmail. In his Munich speech, Biden pledged to "continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost-effective." He also noted that the U.S. would consult its allies as well as Russia; but this multilateralism is hardly new. NATO foreign ministers already stated their support for the proposed missile shield deployment last December, and the Bush Administration already made repeated overtures to Russia for cooperation on the issue - including the offer to make all American installations available for Russian inspection.
Arms reductions and joint efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions have been mentioned as likely areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation. That would be in Russia's interest as well as ours. But for such cooperation to work, Russia would have to change its political mindset. Currently, the men in the Kremlin can't seem to decide whether they want a meaningful partnership with the West or the illusory prestige of challenging American power. Sooner or later, they will have to make that choice