Russia aims to be high on Obama’s agenda

11.jpgTo the extent that he focused on Russia at all, Barack Obama’s attention was concentrated primarily on the need to keep Soviet nuclear weapons stockpiles out of the hands of terrorists.But now, President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia has thrown down a gauntlet intended to demonstrate to the American president-elect that the post-cold war era may not be so post after all.


On Wednesday, while leaders around the world were falling over themselves to hail Mr. Obama’s election, Mr. Medvedev delivered a harsh welcome-to-the-new-cold-war speech in Moscow.


He never mentioned Mr. Obama by name, but Mr. Medvedev said he would deploy short-range missiles near Poland capable of striking NATO territory if the United States pressed ahead with plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe, something that Mr. Obama has said he supports.


Mr. Medvedev put Mr. Obama on notice on the Georgia crisis as well, vowing that “we shall not retreat in the Caucasus.”


Even his one-paragraph congratulatory telegram to Mr. Obama was brusque. “I hope for a constructive dialogue with you, based on trust and consideration of each other’s interests,” Mr. Medvedev wrote.


“It was a giant, ‘Hey, welcome to the game,’ ” said George Friedman, chief executive at Stratfor, a geopolitical risk analysis company. “While Obama would like to deal sequentially with Iraq, Afghanistan and, when he gets to it, the Russians, the Russians themselves want to be a burning issue at the top of his list.”


Mr. Obama, for his part, has yet to respond to the Russian chest-thumping, and he probably will not do so until after his inauguration, his advisers said.


“We only have one president at a time,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference on Friday, responding to a question about whether he would soon meet with foes of the United States. “I want to make sure that we are sending the world one message.”


Since winning the election, the Obama team has taken pains not to say anything publicly that could signal Mr. Obama’s thinking on the many major foreign policy issues lined up before him.


The reasons are twofold.


Many of those advisers are privately hoping for positions in his administration, and they do not want to jeopardize their chances by talking freely with reporters.


More significantly, Mr. Obama himself is still making the transition from campaign oratory – and in the case of Russia, very strong campaign oratory – to the more nuanced approach that many advisers say will be necessary for him to navigate what are bound to be contentious relationships.


But some of his comments during the campaign may already have boxed him in.


When Russia invaded Georgia in August, Mr. Obama’s initial response, drafted just before he left for vacation in Hawaii, was nuanced, urging both nations to exercise restraint. His statement was similar to the State Department’s initial, equally nuanced response, which also did not immediately blame Russia.


The Republicans’ presumptive nominee, Senator John McCain, responded with a hard-line approach, saying that Russia had crossed “an internationally recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia” and should “unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces.”


When the McCain camp criticized Mr. Obama’s response as too measured, Mr. Obama hardened his position. His next statement accused Russia of encroaching on Georgia’s sovereignty. The next day, he said that Russia bore responsibility for the escalation.


By the time of the presidential debates in the fall, Mr. Obama had moved even closer to Mr. McCain on Russia and Georgia, voicing support for Georgia’s entry into NATO, a line in the sand that Russia had dared the West to cross.


Stephen Sestanovich, who was President Clinton’s ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001, said that Mr. Obama’s election may have caused some disquiet in Russia.


“This is a leadership that is not super-comfortable with grass-roots politics,” Mr. Sestanovich, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations who advised the Obama campaign, said of the Russians. “I had a Russian friend e-mail me right afterwards, a short e-mail, and one of the one-word sentences used was ‘envy.’ So that’s how a real democracy works.”


Mr. Obama has options to distance himself from his hawkish remarks on Russia during the campaign, foreign policy experts said. For one thing, while he can continue to support the idea of Georgia becoming part of NATO, the reality is that for now the Europeans will not go along.


Beyond that, Mr. Obama could try to strike more benign agreements that Russians might find soothing, like pushing again for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and working with Moscow toward a way out of the missile defense morass. One possibility would be to offer to delay deployment of a missile shield in Poland until an Iranian nuclear threat – which Washington says is its reason for existing – has actually materialized, instead of doing so immediately.


The Bush administration might even lend a hand; it offered several new proposals to the Russians on Friday, including an offer for Russian military officials to inspect the new installations planned in Poland and the Czech Republic for the new missile defense system.


What Mr. Obama will not be able to do, foreign policy experts said, is cede the former Soviet republics and satellites in Eastern Europe back into the orbit of what the Russians like to call their near abroad.


It is a full plate, and all a long way from Mr. Obama’s first dip into Russia policy, when he joined the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and traveled to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan on a 2005 summer tour with Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Republican foreign policy statesman.


At the Council of Foreign Relations later, the men described their trip, during which they hiked through nuclear weapons storage sites, picked through piles of mortar rounds and land mines, and toured missile elimination facilities.


Mr. Obama deferred to Mr. Lugar often, according to people who attended the session; it was clear, they said, who was the old foreign policy hand, and who was the junior senator. Shortly after, Mr. Obama joined Mr. Lugar in introducing legislation designed to keep stockpiles of weapons in the former Soviet Union from getting into the hands of terrorists.


Mr. Obama’s focus on “loose nukes,” foreign policy experts say, seems almost quaint today.

Source: The New York Times

Check Also

Taliban on the rise

Taliban fighters once derided as a ragtag rabble unable to match U.S. troops have transformed …