Team Perezagruzka meets Mr. Perestroika
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden held an hour-long meeting last Friday with former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the USSR’s political and economic reforms in the late 1980s. President Obama dropped by for 5-10 minutes. The meeting appears to fit with the Obama administration’s ongoing attempt to "reset" relations with Russia in advance of ...
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden held an hour-long meeting last Friday with former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the USSR's political and economic reforms in the late 1980s. President Obama dropped by for 5-10 minutes.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden held an hour-long meeting last Friday with former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the USSR’s political and economic reforms in the late 1980s. President Obama dropped by for 5-10 minutes.
The meeting appears to fit with the Obama administration’s ongoing attempt to "reset" relations with Russia in advance of the U.S. president’s planned meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, at the G-20 summit in London next month.
The Moscow-Washington relationship has seen many setbacks in the intervening years since the retirement of Gorbachev, who has become a controversial figure in a post-Soviet Russia that has often shown a greater interest in reasserting its sphere of influence than respect for his democratic reforms.
U.S. officials described the visit as a chance to exchange views with a respected former statesman of historic importance.
"VP Biden recognized Gorbachev’s role in working to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and expressed the administration’s desire to reach agreement with President Medvedev on launching negotiations on a post-START treaty arrangement and strengthening cooperation on nuclear security and non-proliferation issues," an Obama administration official told Foreign Policy, referring to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Both the U.S. and Russian governments have signaled interest in resuming negotiations for a follow-up treaty this year. Some Washington nonproliferation experts have suggested that high level US-Russia strategic relations is a subject Biden might seek to take a leading role in, similar to the Gore-Chernomyrdin channel.
"Biden also recognized Gorbachev’s historic role in starting democratization, market reforms, and closer ties with the West, and expressed the hope that this agenda could be revived again," the official said.
Obama made a brief appearance, a White House official who attended the meeting said. The president "praised Gorbachev for what he did to change history for the better. And Gorbachev said he believed the Obama administration’s desire to reset relations was very encouraging."
"The president and Gorbachev discussed the importance of rebuilding trust between us and our efforts to reset U.S.-Russia relations, beginning with the president’s meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 1 in London," the Obama administration official said. "President Obama said he was looking forward to having a substantive meeting with President Medvedev."
Veteran U.S. Russia hands said the Obama team understands that recasting the relationship will be an ongoing challenge.
"The people who came in with Obama have their eyes open," said one senior State Department official on condition of anonymity. "They are trying to do two things at once that are really hard: lean forward and move while the wind is to their backs and the weather is favorable for progress. And they are also mindful of the real differences and problems" in the U.S.-Russia relationship. "Obama people like [NSC senior director on Russia] Mike McFaul are neither starry eyed, nor cynical, which is the right way to approach the Russians.
"That said, there are difficulties that will occur," the State Department official said, pointing to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin‘s reported blasting of the European Union over a "modest" EU-Ukraine agreement about refurbishing an oil pipeline, and a hard-line speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brussels last week.
The Obama administration has also signaled possible flexibility on pursuing missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, in the hopes of securing increased Russian help in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear enrichment program. Moscow’s response isn’t yet clear. Russia has reportedly signed a contract but not yet delivered an order for a sophisticated air defense system, the S-300, to Tehran.
"Russia’s response to the idea of ‘resetting’ relations with the U.S. has been encouraging but lacking in substance so far," observed Jeffrey Mankoff, associate director of international security studies at Yale University and an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The central difficulty is that Russia’s leadership sees the country as fundamentally distinct from the West."
"On many of the critical issues," he said, "Moscow and Washington see their interests as fundamentally in conflict. This is the case in Georgia, in Ukraine — and to a certain degree even in Iran, which Russia sees as a reliable customer and a potential troublemaker in the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union.
"That said, what Moscow seems to most want is a seat at the table, and to the extent that a U.S. policy of engagement can encourage Russia to be a stakeholder in upholding stability, I think that policy should be tried," Mankoff continued. "The alternative, of alternately ignoring and punishing Russia, has done little to further the United States’ interest in stability, security, and prosperity in the former Soviet Union."
Can engagement work? "That depends whether Russia comes to believe it has more to gain from cooperating with the U.S. than confronting it," Mankoff said. "A debate on this issue appears well underway in Moscow already."
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