Russia Optimistic

Hillary Clinton's tough talk in Eastern Europe prompted little reaction from Moscow—a sign that U.S.-Russia relations are moving in the right direction.

 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently returned from a tour of Eastern European countries and the post-Soviet space where she seemed to be backtracking on promises made during the recent successful Obama-Medvedev summit held in Washington, DC. Yet, notwithstanding some tough talk from Clinton, one might have noticed there was very little reaction from Moscow. And that was because it was pretty clear this time around that the secretary of state was grandstanding for a domestic-political audience. It is a sign that U.S.-Russia relations are in fact moving in the right direction.

To show just how significant the change is, after the supposedly successful Moscow summit a year ago between Obama and Medvedev, the U.S. administration sent Vice President Biden to the region with a mission to clarify Washington’s new reset policy. He was charged with convincing America’s allies that improving relations with Moscow did not mean handing the region over to Russia on a silver platter, and that giving up missile-defense plans in the Czech Republic and Poland, and abandoning further expansion of NATO by inviting Ukraine and Georgia into the club, did not mean that the United States would be giving Russia carte blanche.

Biden’s visit was somewhat scandalous. Many people, both in Moscow and in Washington, were skeptical about the reset’s prospects. It was yet to be tested by the upcoming elections in Ukraine, the U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolution on Iran, U.S.-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and a number of other challenges on which Moscow’s and Washington’s stances often diverged significantly. It may have been for that specific reason that Vice President Biden was less reserved, less diplomatic, at times tactless and even offensive in his statements with regard to Russia and Russian policy vis-à-vis the post-Soviet space.

This newest summit took place in a completely different environment. The reset had already been tested. The strategic-arms-limitation treaty was signed. The Ukrainian vote, unlike the previous presidential election, had not aggravated the conflict between Moscow and Washington but, on the contrary, showed the two countries were willing to work together. Russia supported the Security Council resolution tightening sanctions against Iran. And the parties have displayed their readiness to work in a constructive manner on a wide range of policy issues, taking into account each other’s interests and concerns.

In the summit’s wake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the region with a totally different tone and agenda in mind it seems. For what seems to be taking place this time around is that the Obama administration is dedicated to the reset and now needs to posture to allay the criticisms of its opponents at home. Speaking in Poland, Kiev, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku, she tried to respond to all the critical comments made by the Obama administration’s opponents in Washington. She pointed out that the White House was concerned about human-rights issues in Russia and China; that it was not indifferent to the destiny of the Eastern European countries; that it was ready to deploy a missile-defense system in Poland; that NATO doors were open to new members (meaning Ukraine, Georgia and other states of the post-Soviet space); that Russia had no right to veto NATO’s expansion and the decisions of independent states to join military alliances; that the United States continued to support the idea of diversification of oil and gas deliveries to the West and therefore was in favor of the Nabucco pipeline project to supply gas to Europe through Turkey; that it was still actively engaged in the settlement of conflict situations in the post-Soviet space (including serious and constructive involvement with the settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region seeking independence from Azerbaijan, as part of the Minsk group) and in the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations.

Although no member of the Obama administration will mention it publicly, the change in Washington’s approach was made in the spirit of the recommendations contained in a report prepared by a group of experts at the Nixon Center under the leadership of former Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart. The analysis concludes that every country has both “interests” and “vital interests.” In pursuing its “vital interests,” at a certain stage, a country sometimes has to either sacrifice or pay less attention to secondary interests. That is because quite often one set of interests contradicts the other.

During her tour, Hillary Clinton clarified the “interests” of the United States in the region. Yet, at the same time, the Obama administration also defined its “vital interests” and its readiness to take Russia’s goals into account in the cause of constructive cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

Continuing this course will not be easy. Republicans and neoconservatives have seriously criticized the Obama administration for allegedly giving up too much to Russia with regard to missile-defense plans, turning a blind eye to human-rights violations, ignoring the post-Soviet space, and, in fact, accepting that Russia can veto NATO expansion.