Due West: Room to Maneuver Crucial in Russian-US Relations

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
I have spent a few days in Washington watching the US presidential elections play out and trying to understand how American policy vis-à-vis Russia will evolve – if at all.

I have spent a few days in Washington watching the US presidential elections play out and trying to understand how American policy vis-à-vis Russia will evolve – if at all.

Now that Barack Obama will soon begin his second term, it is not clear whether we are in for a revamped version of the “reset” policy or for a more robust attitude from the White House. Most experts in Washington talk about the administration’s growing frustration with Moscow’s intransigence on Syria, its hardening stance on Iran and its unchanging hostility to America’s plans for ballistic missile defense deployment in Europe. “Maybe the “party line” won’t change but the rhetoric most probably will,” my friends repeatedly assured me. I am not so certain.

The “reset” was designed to develop and enhance relations with now ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, in the hope that he would eventually eclipse Vladimir Putin. Ever since 2011, when it became clear that Medvedev would step aside, the White House has lost interest in Russia, except for those occasions when Russian attitudes create difficulties at the international level, as is the case with Syria and Iran. President Obama even swallowed the humiliation that president Putin meted out to him in September by kicking the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) out of Russia after accusing it of meddling in Russian politics.

Exactly why the newly re-elected US president should change this attitude is not clear. Being a left wing Democrat he is clearly not interested in the “values agenda” of democracy, human rights and freedom of the speech, unless it concerns women or minorities. Hence the fact that the US government largely stayed aloof from the protest movement that has emerged in Russia over the past year. On the other hand, Obama seems highly interested in pursuing yet another arms reduction treaty with Moscow. Disarmament is evidently one of his main articles of faith: not surprising for a politician of his political hue.

Vladimir Putin will, in all probability, be ready to oblige, so long as he gets something in exchange. The Russian leader’s top three would be: that America refrains from offering the Russian opposition moral support; that the “Justice for Sergei Magnitsky” bill is not enacted by Congress; and that Washington does not try to impede Moscow’s actions in the post-Soviet space – especially in Georgia and Ukraine.

As the Obama administration can hardly be said to have shown a lot of interest in these subjects (and there is evidence that it actually tacitly tried to delay the Magnitsky bill’s passage through Congress) it is fair to assume that it will retain this attitude. It was interesting that the Kremlin emitted an audible sigh of relief at the defeat of Mitt Romney, whose attitude to issues such as democratic values arguably appeared more profound.

Syria and Iran are trickier issues for the White House to tackle. They hold special significance for Putin. For him, defending the regime of Bashar al-Assad or the mullahs in Tehran is less about defending Russia’s allies or Russia’s interests, and much more about standing firm on a point of principle: regime change is inadmissible.

However, as long as Russia’s veto power in the United Nations counts for something Moscow has a certain bargaining position when talking to Washington.

And it doesn’t seem that America’s leadership is ready to take decisive action over either Syria or Iran, so the Russians have some breathing space. Moreover, the Kremlin’s demonstrative support for the Damascus government, including military supplies, met with nothing more than rhetorical criticism. This encouraged Putin and I see no signs of change here either.

“Let the Russians do their own thing as long as they do not become too much of a nuisance,” seems to be the prevailing view in the White House. Once adopted it is hard to change. As long as the Kremlin makes sure it does not do anything that is spectacularly offensive to America’s sensitivities, this policy is bound to last.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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