Our New Russian Opportunity

WASHINGTON, DC -- True to his word, President Obama has launched a new era in American foreign policy. Signals from the U.S. have been positive and encouraging. Henry Kissinger quietly visited Moscow in December.

US President Barack Obama

Vice President Joseph Biden spoke optimistically about cooperating with Russia at the international security conference in Munich. In his first press conference, the President mentioned non-proliferation negotiations and Russia's role in preventing other regimes in acquiring nuclear capability.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to visit Moscow in March to lay the groundwork for reestablishing the U.S.-Russia partnership. And finally, President Obama and President Medvedev will meet at the G-20 summit in April. There is a veritable thaw in the air and spring looks promising.

Moscow has welcomed this change, but has taken a wait-and-see attitude. Moscow responded by canceling plans to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad in exchange for slowdown of the missile defense shield deployment in Eastern Europe.

However, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov snubbed Hilary Clinton's phone call a few weeks ago; he was busy traveling with President Medvedev in Central Asia. The Russians are expanding their influence in this region by offering Kyrgyzstan financial support. Meanwhile, Moscow has opened its airspace for the U.S. to fly non-military supplies to Afghanistan.

Given the emphasis that President Obama has placed on the military operation there, Russia's cooperation will become increasingly important. Where should the State Department start to repair its relationship with its Eurasian ally? It will have to reevaluate its policy towards Russia's neighbors.

Moscow has historically been very sensitive to its borderlands. Over the past millennium, Russia's geopolitical interests have changed at a much slower rate than her governments. The Bush administration targeted its two soft spots: the western borders and the "soft underbelly" in the Caucasus.

Since 2003, the White House placed its bets on Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko at the expense of its relationship with Moscow. However, last summer's war with Georgia and the recent gas dispute between Moscow and Kiev have demonstrated how much more complicated the situation has become.

It is not the black-and-white picture that the U.S. media paints of Russia's relations with its neighbors. Saakashvili and Yushchenko have proved to be not only embarrassments, but liabilities. The Obama administration now has the chance to choose better partners in the region.

The recent gas dispute has demonstrated the weakness of Ukraine's political system. President Yushchenko has repeatedly threatened to ignore the gas deal that Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko negotiated with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in mid-January.

Now it is likely that Moscow will loan Kiev money to weather the financial crisis. The political and international dimensions of the row between Moscow and Kiev provided valuable insight into the Ukrainian presidential campaign that kicks off this year.

Hailed by the Bush administration as a reformer and patriot, President Yushchenko went out of his way to lay all the responsibility for the gas dispute at Russia's doorstep, which was a bit too hasty.

Ukraine's economy has been sliding towards catastrophe and the gas predicament was the latest installment in the standoff between Yushchenko and Timoshenko. The Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz and the murky intermediary RosUkrEnergo threw their weight behind different parties.

Although some see this as the natural birth-pangs of democracy, it has proven a dangerous handicap during the global financial crisis and an embarrassment to the Bush administration even in its last days. At times, neither Moscow nor the EU knew which of the two leaders spoke for Ukraine.

Unfortunately, Mr. Yushchenko has confused Ukrainian patriotism for an anti-Russian policy, which fit perfectly into the Bush administration's containment policy towards Russia. It is true that Moscow has used its natural energy resources as a political lever.

However, since Russia has subsidized Ukraine's economy by selling it gas below market prices, it was well within its rights to expect cooperation in return. Unfortunately, President Yushchenko has equated "westernization" with NATO membership, which the Bush administration encouraged and Moscow opposed.

But preventing neighbors from joining military alliances hardly constitutes imperialism or bullying. Moreover, Russia has never objected to Ukraine's participation in the EU, the OECD, or any other non-military western institution.

Mr. Saakashvili was also a Washington favorite for NATO membership. But his luck ran out when he recklessly attacked a breakaway region with internationally-approved Russian peacekeepers in it. It suits Moscow well that Georgia has two territories in what promises to be endless purgatory, because NATO will not accept a country without full territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, the gas dispute has played into Ms. Timoshenko's hands. Her shuttle diplomacy with Moscow has given her the appearance of a savior in the eyes of the Ukrainians and the Europeans. As long as Mr. Yushchenko tried to square Ukraine's geopolitical circle by "bringing the country into the West" via NATO--instead of via a functional and solvent economy--the gas problem persisted.

Russia is willing to cooperate with a Ukraine integrated into European political and economic structures, but not with a government disdainful of its benefactor's geopolitical interests. By suspending its unequivocal support for Ukrainian (and Georgian) membership in NATO, the Obama administration will gain a more cooperative Russian ally.

Washington would do better to throw its support behind Ms. Timoshenko. She has used the gas dispute to position herself as a Ukrainian patriot, a European-minded politician, and someone able to negotiate with Moscow.

She has eclipsed President Yushchenko and has come out the winner in Ukrainian politics for 2009. In addition to ensuring gas supplies to her western neighbors, she has, no doubt, also negotiated support for herself in the form of Moscow's non-interference in Ukraine's presidential race, which Russia tried to influence in 2004.

This leaves Moscow's protégé Mr. Yanukovich out in the cold this time around. In exchange, Ms. Timoshenko will most likely soften her stance on Ukraine's bid to join NATO and restore a stable and lucrative relationship with Russia.

Indeed, she has already negotiating the Russian loan. The end of the gas crisis signals the beginning of the Ukrainian presidential campaign in which Ms. Timoshenko has a head start. One only hopes that Georgia will also produce as practical a politician.

This spring offers President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton a chance to restore Washington's relationship with Russia by supporting more reliable politicians in Georgia and Ukraine.

Ms. Timoshenko is a tough negotiator, but she does not equate Ukrainian interests with anti-Russian policies that create more problems than they solve. With plans to increase U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the White House and the State Department would do well to restore cooperation with Moscow.

Source: Washington Post