March 7, 2009

March 7, 2009 | Commentary on Russia, Missile Defense

Rendezvous with Russia Musn't Be Rollover

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will get her chance to mash the Obama administration's "reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations when she parachutes into Geneva to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today.

But while better relations with Russia, a resurging major power, are a laudable goal, we have to make sure that this notion of a reboot in relations doesn't equate to a rollover on our part.

Early signs are troubling.

First is the Iranian nuclear dossier. The Obama administration still lacks a distinct policy of its own - and is in a panic for help from anyone with influence in Tehran.

Just this week, it was revealed the White House hinted to the Kremlin last month that it might can our anti-Iranian missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe in exchange for Moscow's help in halting Tehran's atomic aspirations.

Sure, Russia has ties into Iran, including lucrative arms sales and the first in a possible string of nuclear-reactor contracts and nuclear-fuel-supply deals. But Medvedev may well be inclined to see if Washington will pitch missile defense without any promises - or results -- from Moscow on Iran.

Of course, abandoning this missile-defense initiative would leave the United States naked in the face of a growing Iranian threat.

Another troubling sign is the willingness of U.S.-led NATO to restart formal talks with the Russians in the NATO-Russia Council.

The Bush administration put these talks on ice after Russia's invasion of Georgia last year. NATO said talks wouldn't resume until after the Russians reduced their troop levels in two separatist provinces within Georgia to pre-conflict levels. This still hasn't happened.

The Russians have been playing hardball elsewhere, too. They had a hand in getting Kyrgyzstan to close a U.S. air base that was vital to supplying U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Despite all this, the Obama administration, with the consent of other major NATO states, looks set to agree to resume high-level NATO-Russia ties in the near future.

You can only imagine how some of the former Soviet satellites - the Poles, Czechs, Georgians, Balts and others who are now U.S. friends -- must see this line of White House decisions.

Moreover, some critics here fear that the new administration, in a mindless effort to distinguish itself from the Bush team, has fallen into a blind obedience to diplomacy.

Clinton's confab with Lavrov provides a chance for initial frank talk.

She should seize the opportunity - seeking Russian cooperation on issues of mutual interest such as stabilizing Afghanistan, capping Iran's nuclear program and preventing fresh nuclear proliferation.

But Clinton should also assure Lavrov that Washington won't just acquiesce to Moscow despite a desire for an up-tick in ties.

Sure, we want better relations with Russia, but not at the expense of our allies, our friends or our own interests. And that makes any realignment with Moscow a far-off hope.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Russia, Missile Defense

First Appeared in the Boston Herald