Unclenching the Fist: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Age of Obama

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LAST SUMMER, for the first time since the now-misty days of Soviet communism, U.S.-Russia relations took center stage in American politics. In the wake of the war in Georgia, with its unnerving sight of Russian tanks crossing the border of a former satellite, talk of a resurgent, aggressive Moscow was everywhere. During the presidential debates, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain fielded questions on whether the Evil Empire was back.

By the time Election Day rolled around, Georgia was no longer on everyone's mind and the Russian bear seemed far less scary than the bears on Wall Street. Still, Moscow will be an urgent foreign policy priority for the Obama White House. Apart from the sometimes forgotten fact that Russia retains nuclear parity with the United States, it remains a key player in a number of vital international issues, including nuclear proliferation and the war in Afghanistan. In the worst-case scenario (unlikely in the near future, given Russia's significant domestic and military problems), an interventionist Russia could provoke the U.S. military to defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe or the Baltic. If, on the other hand, relations with Russia take a more pacific turn, a genuine partnership could help the U.S. scale down its military commitments in regions where a pro-Western Russia would be a stabilizing influence.

Moscow warrants attention from those of us outside the State Department as well. Americans need not be interventionists to have both a moral and a practical interest in the state of freedom around the world. And in that light, whether Russia--a country that straddles Europe and Asia, claiming large parts of both as its sphere of influence-is a friend or foe to liberty matters a great deal.

During the presidential campaign, McCain was seen as the main Russia hawk. He certainly lived up to the reputation in August, when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempt to forcibly retake the Moscow-backed separatist province of South Ossetia escalated into a military conflict with Russian troops, then a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia. McCain seized the moment, declaring that "we're all Georgians" and stressing his friendship with the strongly pro-American Saakashvili.

Obama, after initially urging moderation on both sides, emerged as almost equally hawkish. He condemned Russia's incursion into Georgia and pointed out that, months earlier, he had urged that Russian peacekeepers in the region be replaced with an international force to avert just such a crisis. During the debates, the two candidates' stands on Russia seemed virtually identical: Both said they wanted to avoid a new Cold War while holding Russia accountable for bad behavior and helping former Soviet satellites resist Vladimir Putin's bullying; both stressed "energy independence" as a way of reducing oil- and gas-rich Russia's ability to throw its weight around.

While some on the left accused Obama of joining the Russia bashing out of political expediency, his relatively hawkish stance was nothing new. In the June 30 issue of The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen, the doves' favorite Kremlinologist since Soviet days, chided both candidates for talking tough instead of addressing U.S. policies that, he argued, had antagonized and provoked the Russians. Writing on the Nation website on July 2, the investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss continued the criticism, noting that Obama was "getting advice from some of the hardest of hardliners on Russia policy," such as Hoover Institution scholar Michael McFaul, guilty of being more concerned with "the autocratic nature of Putin's rule" than with the "stability" it had brought. As this issue goes to press, it is unclear whether McFaul will have a role in the Obama administration, or who the president's point person on Russia will be. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is generally a Russia hawk, and she vied with McCain for the spot of top Putin basher during the campaign. …