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Obama to Face Strained US-Russian Relations After Taking Office


When President-elect Barack Obama is sworn into office January 20, he will face a host of domestic and international issues, including what policy to pursue toward Russia. In Focus, VOA's André de Nesnera looks at U.S.-Russia relations and the most serious disagreement between Washington and Moscow - U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

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

Marshall Goldman from Harvard University says both sides are to blame for the deteriorating relationship.

"The United States under President George W. Bush adopted some policies that the Russians viewed as being unilateral and in an effort to undermine Russia's position in the world political system. And at the same time, the Russians did some things, and particularly the war in Georgia, that upset Americans and American leaders," he said.

Goldman says that in the past few years, as Russia's economic status in the world grew as a result of high oil prices, Moscow wanted to regain its place as an international superpower.

"And when it began to demand a larger voice on the world scene and had the ability to carry out those words [i.e., its larger voice], then inevitably that meant that they were backing into the United States, which had moved in to fill the vacuum, so to speak," he said. "So the two of them, the two countries, began to bump into each other. And I think that's where we are right now."

Experts say relations between Washington and Moscow hit a low point this year, following the August five-day war between Georgia and Russia. The United States strongly criticized Russia's massive military invasion of Georgia following Tbilisi's abortive attempt to take over the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. U.S. President George Bush warned Moscow that bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.

While the recent Russia-Georgia war cast a shadow on U.S.-Russia relations, analysts say the main problem between Washington and Moscow remains the Bush administration's plans to put an anti-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe - 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials say that kind of defense is needed against potential threats from countries such as Iran and that it is not targeted against Russia.

But as Robert Legvold from Columbia University explains, Moscow strongly oppose the missile shield.

"... because it doesn't believe that in the end its [i.e., the United States'] principal motivation is to defend against an Iranian missile threat, even though the missile deployments in Poland and the radar to accompany it in the Czech Republic clearly are not large enough in themselves to seriously threaten Russia's nuclear capability. The Russians believe it's a piece of a larger fabric that links back to the national missile defense the United States is building in the U.S. -- the idea of theater missile defense to accompany it in East Asia, maybe in Taiwan, elsewhere in Europe, is part of a larger enterprise that would in the end be directed against Russia, or at least certainly would have considerable implications for Russia," he said.

Just how important that issue is for Russia was emphasized just hours after Barack Obama was elected president. In a "State of the Union" address in Moscow, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev threatened to deploy short-range, high-precision missiles in Kaliningrad - a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea located between Poland and Lithuania, two NATO allies - if the Obama administration proceeded with the missile shield.

Many analysts, including Jason Lyall from the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, say this was a direct challenge to the U.S. president-elect.

"This is particularly interesting if you make the comparison to the Soviets. At least the Soviets would let the new president-elect come to power, get his feet sort of settled on the ground and then they would challenge - typically, up to six months after he took powerm" he said. "Here, we didn't even get six hours. I think what Medvedev is trying to do is to force Russia back onto the first tier of issues. I think there's a concern that Russia will slip back down to the second tier. It wasn't mentioned much in the [U.S.] electoral campaign, which is a two-year electoral season. And it didn't get that much prominence. Iraq, Afghanistan really kind of drowned out Russia. And I think Medvedev is trying to send a signal, not so much to provoke a crisis, but simply just send a signal and saying, 'Hey, we're here and we need to be paid attention to because there are issues over here'. And he's trying to establish Russia on an equal footing with the United States."

William Drozdiak, an expert on Europe and President of the American Council on Germany, says Mr. Medvedev's warning was very poorly timed from a diplomatic standpoint.

"It does not serve Russia's interests to push Obama into a corner. Because if he [Mr. Medvedev] is really serious about making such aggressive gestures, any new [U.S.] president, regardless of which party, Republican or Democrat, that feels tested by a Russian leader like that, will need to show that he is strong and [will] need to push back," he said. "So if he was hoping for a more conciliatory reaction from Washington, he just won't get it because no president, particularly early in his administration, wants to be perceived as weak."

President-elect Obama did not react to President Medvedev's statement. Mr. Obama's advisers say he supports deploying the missile defense system, but only when the technology is proven to be workable. His advisers also say that Mr. Obama wants to collaborate with Russia to scale back nuclear weapons and ultimately have a nuclear weapons-free world.

During the recent international economic summit in Washington, President Medvedev expressed a conciliatory tone, saying he hoped relations between Washington and Moscow will improve under an Obama administration. But when it came to the missile defense shield, Mr. Medvedev did not soften his position.