Amid rumors that US President Barack Obama will send a message to Vladimir Putin at the end of January, is the United States finally prepared to give the reset a much needed boost?
Despite the bilateral enthusiasm that accompanied the Russia-US reset, relations between the two nuclear superpowers remain frosty. Indeed, there has even been talk of “another Cold War” emerging between the two Soviet-era enemies.
However, now that the election cycle in Russia and the US is over, political analysts are watching to see if Moscow and Washington can find the political will to finally forge a meaningful partnership.
The first sign of a possible thaw came with the news that Obama will send his National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon to Moscow in late January to meet with President Putin.
"At the end of January, shortly after Barack Obama is sworn in, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon will come to Moscow on a special mission,” Kommersant newspaper reported on Friday. “The US President's envoy is expected to meet with Vladimir Putin.”
(Donilon) is expected to “convey a message from the US President to the Russian leader," the article said.
Only Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul are expected to be present at the meeting, Kommersant reported.
In the heat of last year’s US presidential campaign season, which pitted Obama against the Republican challenger, Mitt ‘Russia-is-America’s-number-one-geopolitical-foe’ Romney, the Democratic leader told former President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” after the elections.
“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved but it’s important…to give me space,” Obama was overheard telling Medvedev courtesy of an open mic. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
Now, political analysts are pondering whether the deterioration in Russia-US relations is due to Washington’s fiercely partisan political climate, divided as it is between Democratic and Republican animosities, or if it is simply a case that the Obama administration was never serious about fortifying the bilateral partnership.
To date, the single issue undermining the Russia-US reset is Washington’s plan for installing a missile defense shield in Europe, just miles from the Russian border. Ostensibly designed to protect Eastern Europe from rogue missile attack, the US ABM system threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the strategic balance of the region.
Moscow has warned the US and NATO on numerous occasions that unless the two sides can reach agreement on the system, the world is heading for “another arms race.”
Despite such grim prospects, Washington continues to deny Russia’s participation in the project, while even refusing to provide Moscow with legal assurances that the system will not, in some hypothetical future crisis (a Romney presidency?) aim the technology at Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
At the same time, the US missile defense shield is a small part of an increasingly large machine, collected under the aegis of NATO, which continues its eastward march. The 28-state military bloc is on a constant membership drive that seems to know no limits.
Even Georgia, the Caucasian nation that launched a military offensive against South Ossetia in August 2008, killing Russian peacekeepers and triggering a 5-day conflict with Russia, has been declared a worthy candidate for membership.
These disturbing facts open a can of worms regarding Washington’s ultimate motives for pursuing a reset with Moscow in the first place. The irony has not been lost on many Russians that at the same time the Obama administration is pushing for renewed bilateral relations, even signing a New Start ballistic missile reduction treaty with Russia, it is adamantly opposed to Russia’s participation in the missile defense project.
Finally, one of the main architects of the Russia-US reset, Michael McFaul, was appointed by Barack Obama to the post of US Ambassador to Russia at practically the same moment that Russia was experiencing street protests.
"The fact is that McFaul is not an expert on Russia," said Channel One analyst Mikhail Leontyev, one of the individuals who spoke out against McFaul’s nomination.
Commenting on the title of McFaul's 2001 book – "An Unfinished Revolution in Russia, The political change from Gorbachev to Putin" – Leontyev ventured to ask, "Has Mr. McFaul arrived in Russia to work on his specialty? That is, to finish the revolution?"
It is this sort of suspicion on both sides of the Atlantic that Moscow and Washington will have to overcome before any real breakthrough can be made in the reset.