President Barack Obama is a modern man not overly burdened by the Cold War-era stereotypes that showed in the ideology and actions of President George W. Bush. However, changing long-term priorities is not easy. Russian politicians will similarly find it hard to relinquish entrenched suspicions of the United States.
Factors that exacerbated the old tensions in bilateral relations-aggression in Iraq, the Orange Revolution in Kiev and Ukraine's consequent tilt towards NATO-are losing their relevance.
At the same time, the U.S. military presence in regions bordering the Commonwealth of Independent States will not be reduced and no one has officially rejected plans to expand NATO. What's more, NATO military exercises are being conducted in Georgia despite Russia's strenuous objections.
Those members of Obama's foreign policy team in charge of dealing with Russia - Under Secretary of State and former ambassador to Moscow William Burns, senior director for Russian Affairs at the National Security Council Michael McFaul, and Hillary Clinton - are inclined to cooperate. However, this strategy, based on a search for common interests, has been broadly criticized in America, especially by veterans (and invalids) of the Cold War.
The good news is that Obama wants to preserve an arms control treaty that might have been allowed to expire under a Republican administration. Moreover, Obama wants to move towards a world free of nuclear arms and President Dmitry Medvedev has endorsed that aim.
This doesn't mean, however, that the new START negotiations can't help but succeed. The stumbling blocks are well known. First, there is the problem of "reverse potential": We want to limit all warheads and delivery vehicles, including those in storage, the Americans are ready to consider only those warheads and delivery vehicles ready for launch. Secondly, Russia links the question of strategic offensive weapons with the creation of an American missile defense system. Although the Obama Administration has put plans for such a system in Poland and the Czech Republic on hold (mainly because of doubts about its effectiveness), it is not inclined to return to any of the positions of the ABM Treaty denounced by Bush.
Both foreign policy and defense institutions will have to agree to any new treaty. Under Bush, the White House was more hawkish than the American military. Under Obama, this situation seems to be changing. Russia and America can undoubtedly find common ground when it comes to Afghanistan, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and especially the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Moscow has agreed to provide surface transit for non-military cargoes to Afghanistan and voted for the very tough U.N. resolution that prohibits North Korea from testing any ballistic missiles. The Kremlin is of course interested in routing the Taliban, yet it also openly criticizes America for turning Afghanistan into a source of drugs.
In the view of the Russian elite, the economic crisis has drastically weakened America's position in the world and that is one of the reasons for wanting to press the "reset" button. Russia expects concessions from America. In Washington, meanwhile, officials feel sure that the Russian economy is in free fall and in serious need of Western investment. So they also expect concessions.
The thesis for a "reset" has created a lot of hope. The rosier the hopes, the greater the disappointment when something doesn't go right. So better not to raise expectations too high. Just in case.
First published in Izvestia
Vyacheslav Nikonov is president of the Polity Foundation
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