March 6, 2009

March 6, 2009 | Commentary on Russia, Missile Defense

US-Russia: Reboot or Rollover?

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

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

Some early signs are troubling.

First is the Iranian nuclear dossier. As the clock ticks down to Iran's atomic coming-out party, the new 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 in a secret letter 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.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this week acknowledged the note - but refused any linkage between Washington shelving missile defense and Moscow's dealing with Tehran.

Sure, Russia has ties into Iran, including lucrative arms sales worth billion of dollars and the first in a possible string of nuclear-reactor contracts and nuclear-fuel-supply deals worth billions more. But with the White House leaning so far forward in its stirrups, Medvedev may well be inclined to see if Washington will pitch missile defense without any concrete promises -- or results -- from Moscow on Iran.

Of course, abandoning this missile-defense initiative would leave the United States naked (aside from the threat of massive retaliation with our own nukes) in the face of a growing Iranian nuclear and ballistic-missile threat.

Another troubling sign is the willingness of US-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 South Ossetia and Abkhazia, 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 strong hand in getting Kyrgyzstan to close a US airbase> there that was critical to supplying US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, allowing supply lines to avoid transiting dangerous areas of Pakistan.

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 in an air of "business as usual."

You can only imagine how some of the former Soviet satellites -- the Poles, Czechs, Georgians, Balts and others who are now US friends and/or allies -- 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 tees up Obama's meeting with Medvedev next month in London at the G20 economic summit - and provides a chance for initial frank talk on important issues with the Russians.

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 - and thus reassure our friends and allies in the neighborhood - 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 strategic realignment with Moscow more of a far-off hope than a near-term reality.

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

First Appeared in the New York Post