Last week was marked by two intimately connected major events: Obama announced the scrapping of the plan to deploy Missile Defense Shield elements in Eastern Europe, and NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen made an arguably even more impressive speech listing three global security initiatives aimed at rapprochement with Russia. It would hardly be an overstatement to call the two events historic, for never before have a US president and a NATO secretary general made such promising and friendly moves toward Russia, and not just by word but actually by deed. NATO's readiness for a joint US-Russian missile defense system and a serious consideration of Medvedev's idea for a new Euro-Atlantic security architecture amounts to acknowledging Russia's role as a major player on the European continent. This can also be regarded as an invitation to Russia to complete a military and eventually also a political and economic integration with the West.
The content of Obama's speech came as no surprise due to leaks to the press long before the official announcement. As was to be expected, both in America and in other countries, particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic, a massive campaign to condemn this decision was launched even before the speech. Vitriolic outbursts accusing Obama, at best, of weakness, incompetence and enormous concessions to Russia, and at worst, of something amounting to the betrayal of the country's interests, inundated the US media. It has to be said, though, that there were also numerous supporters of Obama's decision, even among prominent republicans, such as Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser under George Bush Sr., and many others.
Most of the European allies are backing Obama and so do even the majority of populations in Poland and Czech Republic, except their leadership, of course. As in the good old times of the Soviet Union, they helped to organize protest petitions by East European public figures, intellectuals, etc., imploring the West not to abandon America's weak, defenseless and loyal friends face to face with aggressive Russia.
All those appeals looked pretty pathetic, because they as good as made nonsense of Bush's endless harangues about the missile defense in Eastern Europe targeting Iran alone and in no way aimed at Russia. To listen to these "intellectuals," the system must have been devised precisely for containing Russia; otherwise what's the point of these jeremiads?
Now all eyes are on Moscow and judging by the statements of the Russian leadership to date, the initial reaction was fairly positive. This is encouraging. However just as the folks in the Kremlin invariably demand deeds rather than words from others, the Russians would do well to act likewise now.
There is very real danger of Moscow taking these initiatives as yet another cunning move by Washington and Brussels, with Russia being told to make some tangible geopolitical concessions in exchange for the scrapping of Bush's costly and, worse, ineffective toy plus a few meaningless promises from NATO.
"Those who are talking about a concession to Russia are primarily those who are looking for a bargaining chip in seeking extra dividends of some kind from us," said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO.
Clearly, no one expects any sort of gratitude or charity for Obama, as this is purely a matter of pragmatism. The fact is that Russia, just as America, Europe, China, India -- the list could be extended indefinitely -- is interested in stability in Afghanistan and not interested in seeing Iran in possession of nuclear weapons.
It so happens that Russia, for various geographical, historical, economic, and other reasons, is the one country capable of making a substantial and in the case of Iran perhaps crucial contribution to the settlement of precisely these problems. It would be wrong to say that currently Russia is not doing anything to this end. Yet it could do much more, and not just to please Washington or Brussels, but primarily for the sake of its own security. If this viewpoint prevailed in the Kremlin, that would be precisely the reciprocal step to meet Obama halfway that might be followed by other positive steps toward each other. Eventually this might kick-start the irreversible process of the integration of Russia and the West that has been our cherished dream ever since the collapse of communism.
Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow.