Can Obama visit close values gap between Washington and Moscow?

US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry
Medvedev got down to business on July 6, trying to place US-Russian
relations back on a solid foundation after an extended period of rancor
connected to last August’s fighting in Georgia. Perhaps appropriately,
a chill was in the Moscow air as discussions got underway.

Medvedev, in welcoming Obama to the Kremlin, said Russia was interested
in ”closing some of the pages of the past and opening some pages of the
future.” Obama replied: ”on a whole host of issues — including
security issues, economic issues, energy issues, environmental issues
— that the United States and Russia have more in common than they have
differences, and that if we work hard during these next few days, that
we can make extraordinary progress.”

Before ending their pre-talks press availability Medvedev noted the
cold weather. ”It’s going to be chilly outside, and it’s better to work
inside.” Obama, striving to keep things upbeat, recalled ”that the last
time I was here in Moscow, it was 80 degrees.”

The presidential exchange over the weather may be symbolic of what’s to
come during Obama’s Moscow visit. While the Obama administration’s
desire to improve relations with Russia appears to be sincere, the
Kremlin doesn’t seem to be in the mood to reciprocate. For the two
states to engage in substantive cooperation, Moscow would need to veer
away from its authoritarian ways, but such a change in the Kremlin’s
behavior seems unlikely.

At the same time, the Russian leadership tandem of Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin and Medvedev has seen a need to improve US-Russian
relations, which hit its lowest point in two decades following the
outbreak of the August war in Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. The departure of former US President George W. Bush
from office in January offered the chance for a fresh start. US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got things going by announcing
Washington’s desire to hit the ”reset” button in bilateral relations.
This initial dynamic created a momentum that first led, earlier this
year, to the Obama-Medvedev meeting in London. That meeting, in turn,
set the wide-ranging agenda for the Moscow July summit.

Although the two sides have expressed their desire to harmonize their
positions on several strategic issues, deep divisions between
Washington and Moscow — concerning their respective motives,
interests, threat perceptions, values and overall strategic outlooks —
remain evident. There also exists a lack of consensus within the two
respective policy-making communities as to how to go about
restructuring relations. Thus, the two sides have different
expectations and understandings of what exactly ”resetting” relations

The greatest structural flaw of US-Russian relations is that they are,
to a great extent, held hostage to geopolitical considerations. Unlike
relations between Russia and the European Union, or those between the
United States and China, US-Russian ties have never been anchored in an
extensive web of economic connections. Despite the fact that the Obama
visit prompted the announcement that .5 billion-worth of deals have
been signed, trade volume between the two world giants remains
negligible. Shared economic interests are therefore unable to
counterbalance a broad values gap.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest challenge in Moscow will be bringing about a
shift in the perception of US motivations in the eyes not only of
Kremlin decision-makers, but among the Russian public. Russian policy
makers are convinced that Washington is striving to weaken Russia.
Before Obama’s departure for Moscow, presidential adviser Michael
McFaul indicated that US leaders face a daunting challenge in trying to
reshape that image. Greatly increasing the degree of difficulty is the
fact that Russian mass-media outlets are heavily influenced by the
Kremlin, and that Putin, Medvedev and others in Moscow appear to cling
to Cold War notions that bilateral relations are a ”zero-sum” game, in
which there has to be a clear winner and loser.

Many Russian experts readily acknowledge that existing gaps in
political philosophy may be too wide to bridge. For example, Russia’s
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an influential think tank,
recently released a report analyzing Moscow’s and Washington’s vital
interests and foreign policy objectives. ”The respective interests of
Russia and the United States either lie in non-intersecting realities,
or have very different importance for the countries,” the report
concluded bluntly.

Looking at what both sides hope to get out of the Moscow summit, it
would seem prudent to keep expectations restrained. The Obama
administration, above all, seeks the Kremlin’s help in stabilizing
Afghanistan, preventing Pakistan from spinning out of control and
blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The ruling elite in Moscow, for its
part, wants Washington’s acquiescence for what would amount to be a
Russian sphere of influence in post-Soviet Eurasia. As part of this
overall strategic agenda, Moscow would like to reach an understanding
whereby all international alliances are kept away from the region of
its ”privileged interests.”

Russia’s recent track record of cooperation with the United States on
Afghanistan and Iran is mixed and reflects Moscow’s strategic ambiguity
on these matters. If anything, many Russian strategists believe that
Moscow’s interests would be better served by the preservation of the
status quo — that is, the current situation defined by a high level of
uncertainty — rather than by close cooperation with the Obama
administration. Even so, Day One of the Obama visit did yield a
noteworthy, positive development — an agreement under which Moscow
will allow US military equipment and personnel to transit across
Russian territory en route to Afghanistan.

There is a major stumbling block on the US side. Washington, as much as
it needs Russia’s help in the Greater Middle East, would never grant
the Kremlin the free hand in strategic and energy-rich Eurasia. Thus,
any notion of a major trade-off or ”grand bargain” is a non-starter.

Perhaps tacitly aware of the existing limitations of US-Russian
relations, Obama and Medvedev/Putin are focusing much of their energy
in Moscow on the arms control issue, one area where the interests of
the two countries coincide. ”Our countries are intensifying their
search for optimum ways of strengthening strategic relations on the
basis of mutual respect and interests,” said a joint presidential
statement issued on July 6. ”We have instructed our experts to work
together to analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st
century and to prepare appropriate recommendations, giving priority to
the use of political and diplomatic methods.”

It would seem some sort of new agreement could be reached relatively
quickly. However, the arms control sphere remains at risk of being
mired in geopolitics. Russian negotiators have been attempting to link
the issue of strategic arms reduction to US plans to deploy
anti-missile systems in Central Europe. US experts, in turn, have
suggested that the anti-missile deployment issue could be linked to
Russian cooperation on containing Iran’s nuclear program.

Some political scientists describe Russia’s post-Soviet regime as a
hybrid, incorporating elements of authoritarianism and democracy. Quite
aptly, one Russian pundit recently described Moscow’s ambiguous stance
vis-á-vis the United States and European Union as the strategy of
being simultaneously ”with the West and against the West.” So long as
this hybrid regime persists in the Kremlin, the strategic ambiguity in
Russia’s relations with America and Europe will continue.