The beginning of a beautiful friendship (maybe)

When the Obama administration’s foreign policy team talks about Russia, they do it exuberantly. After almost two decades of on-and-off tension, the U.S. and Russia are on the way to a "normalization" of relations, says Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications. Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama’s special advisor on Russia, says that ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When the Obama administration's foreign policy team talks about Russia, they do it exuberantly. After almost two decades of on-and-off tension, the U.S. and Russia are on the way to a "normalization" of relations, says Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications. Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama's special advisor on Russia, says that what's going on is historic in scope. The relationship has gotten the West and Russia away from "the 19th Century Great Game, and the 20th Century Cold War," said McFaul, who along with Rhodes briefed reporters last night by telephone.

The high-fiving was prompted most recently by an impending state visit from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Washington tomorrow. At a time when foreign policy successes are hard to come by, the administration appears intent on parading Medvedev as an unqualified triumph of signal importance, involving advances in areas of "core U.S. strategic interests," McFaul said.

When the Obama administration’s foreign policy team talks about Russia, they do it exuberantly. After almost two decades of on-and-off tension, the U.S. and Russia are on the way to a "normalization" of relations, says Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications. Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama’s special advisor on Russia, says that what’s going on is historic in scope. The relationship has gotten the West and Russia away from "the 19th Century Great Game, and the 20th Century Cold War," said McFaul, who along with Rhodes briefed reporters last night by telephone.

The high-fiving was prompted most recently by an impending state visit from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Washington tomorrow. At a time when foreign policy successes are hard to come by, the administration appears intent on parading Medvedev as an unqualified triumph of signal importance, involving advances in areas of "core U.S. strategic interests," McFaul said.

There is some justification for the administration’s crowing: The U.S. relationship with Russia has indisputably improved, a development that may be responsible — along with relatively low oil prices and the financial crisis — for Moscow’s generally nicer tones. Yesterday Russian diplomats endorsed a Council of Europe resolution denouncing Moscow’s countenancing of an atmosphere of torture, murder and other violence in Chechnya and elsewhere in the north Caucasus; such a Russian vote would have been unthinkable just months ago.

Today, Medvedev is touring Silicon Valley, a sign of both his stated hope of diversifying Russia’s economic dependence on oil, gas, and metal exports, and the Obama Administration’s desire to solidify a business-to-business relationship between the U.S. and Russia. McFaul described the "surreal experience" of Russian youths shooting hoops with Obama in May, and the next day Medvedev hosting 22 American venture capitalists at his residence outside Moscow. "This simply didn’t happen before," said McFaul. The administration wants such business ties to be part of reset, he said.

Perhaps there is a case of amnesia at work here — such intimate meetings between American businessmen and Russian leaders go back at least as far as the Mikhail Gorbachev-era Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev met with oil executives regularly, including from Chevron, for instance, as they sought to buy rights to the Tengiz oilfield. (Who can forget the exuberance and hope that accompanied the Gorbachev-Reagan détente?) Russian President Boris Yeltsin hosted oilmen, bankers, publishers — any serious Western business people he could find, it seemed — both at his office and residences. For all his sharp words about the United States, Vladimir Putin has hosted numerous business groups at his residences. For example, when western investment bankers played their part in the cannibalization of Yukos, by arranging a Rosneft IPO, Putin hosted them in a jolly October 2006 meeting at his dacha in Novo-Ogaryovo.

As for the Great Game, I wonder. Clinton Administration-era deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott trotted out that assertion incessantly – he used the metaphor of Flashman, the George MacDonald Fraser character, claiming a close to those zero-sum days of superpower rivalry in Central Asia.  Yet, pipeline politics amounts to the same thing — and unless one wishes to discount the continued U.S.-Russia tussling over the control of pipelines into Europe, the Great Game continues today.

The administration says it is under no illusions that there aren’t "fundamental disagreements" between Washington and Moscow. As an example, McFaul cited the issue of Georgia, and its 2008 war with Russia that resulted in Moscow recognizing the independence of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said that Obama has expressed to Medvedev the Administration’s rejection of the Russian military’s "occupation" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the "long term," McFaul said, the administration seeks to get Russia to leave. Has Obama asked Medvedev in a straight-forward manner to get the troops out? McFaul didn’t say so. Instead, he argued quickly that "Georgia and the rest of Europe are more secure than they were" at the end of the Bush Administration.

There is a balance here – the relationship is palpably different, and is paying visible dividends. Yet the administration is already hearing from critics of its policy, in addition to the usual naysayers.

Among the latter are William Browder, the former high-flying promoter of investment in Russia who has soured on doing business there since being denied a visa to return, and the death in prison of his Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. His group of discontents are distributing the following video, which lays out their case of corruption against the Interior Ministry official for whom they say the government is providing sanctuary.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.