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March 17, 2009

Bipartisan Experts Urge 'Partnership' With Russia

by Jim Lobe

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama should work hard on areas of common interest with Russia in order to build a "partnership, however uneasy," that would serve Washington's interests in key areas, including non-proliferation, energy, and counter-terrorism, according to a new report [.pdf] released Monday by the Nixon Center and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

The 17-page report, the product of a bipartisan task force of two dozen former senior government officials and independent experts with substantial experience in dealing with both the former Soviet Union and Russia, calls, among other things, for the new administration to shelve U.S. efforts to make Ukraine and Georgia full members of NATO and move promptly to eliminate Cold War trade restrictions with Moscow and bring it into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"A new, more forthcoming approach to Russia is far from guaranteed to succeed, but we are convinced that the risk in making the effort is smaller than the costs of a slide into hostility," asserted the report, which was presented by four task force members to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his top national security aides in Moscow last week.

"If both Washington and Moscow are committed to improving their relationship, action to … gradually transform American relations with Russia into a partnership, however uneasy, could considerably advance U.S. goals from Iran to Afghanistan and beyond," it concluded.

The report, which has also been briefed by task force members to Vice President Joseph Biden and Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, comes amid indications that the new administration is indeed determined – at least rhetorically – to establish a more cooperative bilateral relationship which appeared to reach a post-Cold War low last summer during and after the brief war between Russia and U.S.-backed Georgia.

In an important speech to the annual security conference in Munich last month, Biden made clear that Washington was looking for ways to, in his words, "press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia."

And in her first meeting with her Russian counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even presented Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a yellow box with a large red "reset" button to drive the point home, although what was supposed to be the Russian translation on the box turned out to mean "overload."

The new administration, however, has made clear that it is prepared to reconsider its predecessor's determination to deploy a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic – a major irritant for Moscow – in hopes of gaining Russia's help on other priority issues. Most importantly, these include pressing Iran to freeze its uranium-enrichment program and possibly helping persuade the authorities in Kyrgyzstan to reverse their decision – reportedly inspired at least in part by Moscow – to deny Washington continued access to its Manas air base, a key hub for troops and supplies bound for Afghanistan.

The new report clearly favors such efforts, suggesting that they should be part of a larger and more comprehensive strategy based on a "much clearer definition of American interests and priorities and serious consideration of Russian interests," as well.

That it will get a serious hearing both in the White House and the Kremlin is virtually certain, given the stature of the task force's members, which include several former U.S. ambassadors to Russia, including Thomas Pickering, who served under Bill Clinton, and Jack Matlock, who served under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Other members of the task force, which was co-chaired by two former senators, Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrat Gary Hart, included former national security advisers Robert McFarlane and Brent Scowcroft; former Treasury Secretary Peter Peterson; and the head of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Rep. Lee Hamilton, who, like Scowcroft, has acted as an informal adviser to Obama and a number of whose protégés now occupy key posts in the National Security Council staff and the State Department.

Like the Nixon Center itself, the task force was also dominated by foreign policy realists, most of them Republicans, who clashed frequently on a range of issues – including relations with Russia – with neoconservatives and other hawks in the George W. Bush administration.

That battle is expected to continue as neoconservatives, in particular, have been arguing for months that Russia's foreign policy ambitions, particularly its alleged desire to reassert control over former Soviet states of its "near abroad" and Europe's energy supplies, as well as what they describe as its increasingly authoritarian tendencies, are fundamentally incompatible with both U.S. values and interests.

"Any 'grand bargain' the United States makes with Russia would be viewed in Moscow as a sign of desperation," recently wrote David Kramer, a neoconservative who led the State Department's human rights bureau under Bush, suggesting that Moscow would be quick to take advantage. "[A]bove all, we must not bargain away our relations with Russia's neighbors or our own values."

While the new report does not argue explicitly for such a "grand bargain," it makes a series of recommendations for finding common ground with Russia across a number of issue areas and regions.

On nonproliferation, for example, it calls making Russia a U.S. "partner" in dealing with Iran a "top priority." It also urges Moscow and Washington to work together to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime through existing and new international treaties and launching a "serious dialogue on arms control," including discussion of the "'nuclear zero' goal articulated" by both Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

It calls for a "new look" at missile-defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic to "make a genuine effort to develop a cooperative approach to the shared threat from Iranian and other missiles" and to "develop options other than NATO membership to demonstrate a commitment to the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia."

"Close U.S. Russian cooperation in Russia's neighborhood is unlikely, but the United States should avoid zero-sum competition for influence there," according to the report. "The United States must recognize … that its interests are not identical to those of Russia's neighbors and avoid becoming their instrument in dealing with Russia."

It also urges support for "European efforts to develop non-Russian sources of natural gas," while working with both Washington's European allies and Russia to "develop a mutually acceptable system of rights and responsibilities for energy suppliers, transit countries, and consumers."

In addition, Washington should work for Russia's growing integration into the global economy, through membership in the WTO, graduation from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that tied preferential trade treatment to free immigration from Russia, and negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty.

On human rights, the task force said Washington should "call attention to Russian leaders' formal commitments to democracy and international obligations to protect human rights while respecting Russia's sovereignty, history, and traditions, and recognizing that Russian society will evolve at its own pace."

Washington should also "ensure that U.S. behavior meets or exceeds the same standards and that statements about Russian conduct are proportionate to those directed at other governments."

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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