How Should U.S. Engage Russia?

By Joshua Tucker & Jim Arkedis

Just after Independence Day, President Obama will travel to Moscow for his first bi-lateral meeting with his Russian counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev. The visit occurs at a time of complexity in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Thanks to a unique blend of circumstances, Mr. Obama has the opportunity to change the dialogue with Russia to advance long term goals for America.

Fifteen years ago, Washington believed Russia was on the path to becoming a democracy. Unfortunately, it hasn't evolved that way-Freedom House recently wrote that Russia is "a facade of democracy." This anti-democratic slide became a major problem, earning stern but diplomatically tone deaf rebukes from the Bush administration.

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The democratic deconstruction was facilitated in large part by Russia's economic boom, fueled by rocketing oil prices between 2000 and mid-2008. At this moment of petro-hubris, President Vladimir Putin chose to confront the West, asserting that American dominance prevented Russia from regaining its lost international status. This aggressive attitude was on brazen display as Russian tanks rolled towards Tbilisi last August and Moscow repeatedly moved to control Europe's gas supply for political aims.

Despite this turbulent recent history, the U.S. and Russia have mutual security and economic interests that should be advanced immediately. While the advancement of democracy and human rights in Russia should remain an American priority, this objective will require time and patience. In short, it's this balancing of near-term cooperation and nudges toward longer-term liberalization that constitutes the essential compromise of American policy shifts toward Russia.

Seen in this light, the July meeting comes at an opportune moment: Weakened by the lower price of oil and in need of international capital, Russia may be more open to cooperation. Furthermore, President Medvedev himself is cause for guarded optimism-though he is hardly a Western liberal, he tilts more in that direction than KGB alum and current Prime Minister Putin.

President Obama should jump at the opportunity to foster cooperation with Russia-and lay the groundwork for greater freedom within it. Here's how, in three steps:

Recognize that the U.S. and Russia have shared interests, and that those interests are increasingly urgent. Think for a moment about America's most vital national security priorities: halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear arms; combating Islamist terrorism; monitoring the ambitions of a rising China. These are Russia's priorities, too, and the Obama administration should seek closer ties with Moscow on all of these crucial fronts.

But to achieve these aims, Mr. Obama needs to build trust by accommodating Russian concerns in other areas. Though the United States should never place relations with Russia ahead of its own interests, in practice, this would mean adopting a "go slow" approach to NATO expansion and missile defense in Central Europe, exploring ways to integrate Russia into the latter.

Declare an end - finally - to the Cold War. While the United States and Russia have deep and serious differences on a range of issues, the countries are no longer global rivals.

Nuclear weapons are an obvious starting point. In Prague this past April, President Obama laid out a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Since the U.S. would never disarm unilaterally, it needs Russian cooperation. While negotiations of the size of arsenals will come later, a good confidence-building measure is to take our nuclear weapons off "hair trigger alert," a Cold War holdover.

In a similar spirit, President Obama can show America's goodwill by revoking the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, designed to encourage free emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union. While laudable and necessary in its day, the measure is a constant irritation in Russian-American relations.

Don't give up on Russian democracy. The watchword of the Moscow meetings should be cooperation, not confrontation. It's a time for gradually building ties, not for righteous lectures to a proud nation whose own people often seem quite ambivalent about the merits of democracy.

Nonetheless, the U.S. should take measured but firm positions-coupled with deliberate, cool-headed rhetoric-that support gradual development of democratic institutions in Russia. Across Russia, brave individuals are calling for greater accountability and transparency in government. They deserve an American advocate. You never quite know what opportunities may arise, but the U.S. should be watchful to encourage greater openness and respect for human rights within Russia.

Russia has a chance to enjoy a productive long-term relationship with America. President Obama, for his part, has signaled a desire to seek pragmatic solutions to international problems while standing for American values; this prescription lights the way.

Joshua A. Tucker is an Associate Professor of Politics at New York University.  Jim Arkedis is the Director of the National Security Project of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) in Washington, D.C.

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