"We worked hard to get the right Russian word," Clinton told Lavrov, "do you think we got it?"
"You got it wrong," answered Lavrov. "This says 'peregruzka,' which means overcharged."
It must have come as a pleasant surprise to Vice President Joe Biden's speechwriter that his phrase about the need to "hit the reset button" in Moscow-Washington relations suddenly became popular and endlessly quoted by both pro- and anti-revisionists of U.S.-Russia relations. In any case Russia should obviously thank its lucky stars for Obama's electoral victory, for had he lost, the chances of improving these relations would have been very slim indeed -- things would most likely go from bad to worse.
Obama is clearly sending out positive signals, yet Moscow, regrettably, has so far refrained from offering to meet him halfway, producing little except rhetoric about its readiness to try new foreign policy approaches. Moreover, according to numerous political analysts, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already made two mistakes that baffle everyone favoring the two countries' rapprochement.
Mistake number one was that on the new U.S. President's Inauguration Day, Medvedev announced his intention to deploy offensive missiles in the Kaliningrad Region should the United States fail to give up the idea of installing ballistic missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland. Even before his inauguration, Obama had repeatedly declared that for him this project of his predecessor George W. Bush was not a priority. After all, Medvedev could have confined his announcement to diplomatic channels or the hot line, but to do so publicly on Inauguration Day was hardly the best option. True, Moscow's stance was later clarified, to the effect that no Russian missiles have yet been deployed in that area, nor would they be should the U.S. give up its plans for those BMD facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.
However, the damage was done and, naturally, the Western media lost no time in making a big fuss about it. While in the old days the stand of the right-wing press had been somewhat offset by its leftist counterpart, now both the right and the left-wing media tend to be strongly anti-Russian. Medvedev's original statement was nothing short of a godsend to them.
The other contretemps involved Kyrgyzstan. For some years already the Kyrgyz government has been making noises about the U.S. ignoring its demands for increasing payments for the military base in Manas and generally behaving in an old-fashioned imperialist style, even to the point of shooting a peaceful Kyrgyz citizen without so much as apologizing for the incident. But when Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced his intention to close the airbase, the blame was instantly laid at Moscow's door. Russia was indulging in double standards, according to Pentagon head Robert Gates, who is hardly the worst of the Beltway hawks, but rather a pragmatist in the new U.S. administration. "On the one hand it is sending out positive signals that it is prepared to cooperate with the U.S. in Afghanistan, but on the other it is working against America on the issue of the Kyrgyz air base," said Gates.
That was followed by a letter from forty members of Congress sent to Obama demanding that he continue with the BMD program in Eastern Europe. Other U.S. foreign policy experts and observers were even more blunt, accusing Obama and his team of being too gullible or even incompetent when the latter declared themselves in favor of resetting U.S.-Russia relations, i.e. willing to start these relations over from scratch. As for The Washington Times, it actually compared Vice President Biden's Munich speech to the disgraceful Munich pact of 1938 when the West sold Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler. Among other critics of Obama's supposed concession to Moscow are the leaders of several East European countries, the Baltic states, and the radical internal opposition in Russia, to whom certain U.S. media offer unlimited chances of airing their views.
Thus the warming of U.S.-Russia relations is being sorely tried almost before it has begun. However, Moscow has very good trump cards for taking over the initiative, primarily in the area of Afghanistan and Iran cooperation. Obviously it is not about some charity extended to the United States, but strictly about mutually beneficial projects. The Taliban are every bit as much an enemy of Russia as they are of America. Nor is it in Russia's interests to look idly on while Iran is arming itself with nuclear weapons, so there is every opportunity for mutually advantageous cooperation there.
America is currently in a fairly tough fix, both economically and financially, and also in the Middle East. Russia, too, is far from thriving. It is therefore in both countries' interests to help each other. This kind of policy would go a long way toward establishing a climate of trust and cooperation between Russia and the United States and would neutralize the activity of the anti-Russia lobby in Washington.
Take the Manas military base case, for instance. We know that Kirghizia's parliament has voted for its removal, but just 30 kilometers away there is a Russian military base. Considering that the dangers facing the Americans and the Russians are virtually identical -- terrorism and drug trafficking -- why doesn't Russia suggest setting up a joint military base with the U.S., or one under joint command, or else take turns in managing it? A radical project no doubt, and one bound to come up against strong opposition, but we could start by conducting some joint military and reconnaissance operations, could we not? And I am confident that if Moscow and Washington had suggested something along these lines, and moreover, offered handsome lease payments to Bishkek, it would have most likely been accepted.
Furthermore, if Iran's leaders received a signal to the effect that the Russian and Western stands were converging, they would have less leeway for ignoring offers of cooperation in exchange for giving up nuclear arms production. In the area of anti-missile defense Russia and America could work together, both in terms of research and technology, and in the matter of territorial deployment. This is often discussed, but so far, unfortunately, there's no getting down to brass tacks.
However, we now see some encouraging steps in the right direction both on a government and public level. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart Hillary Clinton had a very good meeting in Geneva and according to Mr. Lavrov they formed a "wonderful personal relationship." He and Mrs. Clinton agreed on a "work plan" that would set the stage for a treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, the 1991 pact that expires this year. This was a good opening for the upcoming meeting in London in early April between President Barack Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev.
Practically at the same time thirty-four prominent Republicans and Democrats, including plenty of luminaries like eleven former members of Congress, four defense secretaries, two national security advisors, and four U.S. ambassadors to Moscow signed a joint statement stating that two countries "share a wide range of critical interests," and even though "Russia's heavy hand at home and with its neighbors is troubling," these concerns "must be addressed through effective dialogue, not an escalating war of words."
Russia and America could no doubt tackle numerous issues together, e.g. in science and medicine, climate change control, new sustainable energy sources, etc.
At the moment the situation is reasonably favorable for achieving a breakthrough in U.S.-Russia relations. Too many chances have been missed in the past, and we cannot afford to have all our hopes of a rapprochement dashed yet again.