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Dealing with Russia a Key Challenge for Obama


According to three former senior U.S. government officials, one of the central foreign policy questions facing the incoming Obama administration will be how to deal with a resurgent Russia.

Most experts agree that relations between Washington and Moscow are not good. Some analysts use words such as "poor," "strained" and "at a low point" to describe the relationship.

Former National Security Adviser [1974-77; 1989-93; retired Air Force] General Brent Scowcroft says the relationship is tense despite meetings over the years between President George Bush and then Russian President - now prime minister - Vladimir Putin.

"Nothing really has ever resulted from it. I think we are in part talking past each other," he said. "I think we have never really sat down and developed a strategy for dealing with Russia following the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union has sort of liberated Russia from its history. Now I think it's struggling, in a way, to figure out who it is, what it is, where it's going. I think they feel that we have taken advantage of them in their period of weakness and confusion."

Former Secretary of Defense [1973-75] James Schlesinger agrees.

"The United States has tended to, in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, ignore Russian sensitivities," he said. "But the Russians have of late demonstrated a degree of brutality that is not conducive to pleasant conversations. Whether that will change is unclear."

Schlesinger was referring to the August five-day war between Russia and Georgia - a conflict that cooled relations between the United States and Russia even further. Washington strongly criticized Moscow's massive military incursion into Georgia in response to Tbilisi's abortive attempt to take over the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Experts say there are other major disagreements between Washington and Moscow. One of those is the Bush administration's backing of Georgia and Ukraine to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow is against that. President-elect Barack Obama has indicated he favors NATO membership - but only when those two countries are ready.

Another point of disagreement is the U.S. plan - also strongly opposed by Moscow - to put an anti-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe - 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. Mr. Obama's advisers say he supports the missile defense system, but only when the technology is proven to be workable.

"From my perspective, and I know everyone will be horrified now, particularly my conservative friends - but I do think we bear some responsibility for the less friendly relationship we now have with them," said Former Secretary of State [1992] Lawrence Eagleburger. "If you are going to bring about alliances along Russia's border and you end up putting anti-ballistic missile launchers and so forth, it seems to me what the Russians have to take away from that is that we intend to isolate them. And our eastern European friends and allies, which used to be puppets to the Soviet Union - they are happy to go along with this as well because they see this as protection from the monster that governed them for so long. But the Russians have to, I think, look at that as an attempt at isolation."

Analysts say despite the bad relations, Washington and Moscow are cooperating in such areas as fighting terrorism, energy security and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

Former National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft says he is encouraged by President-elect Barack Obama's willingness to discuss issues with friends and foes alike.

"That's one of the reassuring aspects of his approach to foreign policy, for me, that you maximize your chances of making progress if you're talking to people," he said. "In the deepest, darkest days of our conflict with the Soviet Union - or our confrontation with the Soviet Union - we talked to them. We had talks on the most sensitive issue of all and that is nuclear arms - and I think it helped a lot."

Many experts are calling for a summit meeting between President Obama and Russian leader Dmitri Medvedev in the early months of the new U.S. administration. They say such a meeting would provide a solid basis for improving a relationship that needs a positive jolt.

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