Russia: Unclenching its fist?

Improved Polish-Russian ties bode well for the US.

The wary rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow holds some hope for President Obama's stated goal of restarting American-Russian relations. Let's call this the Polish hypothesis.

Poland and Russia's own reset button got pressed last fall, as events took a turn virtually unnoticed by outsiders. For the first time since the Berlin wall fell two decades ago, says Polish Undersecretary of State Przemyslaw Grudzinski, Russia is now treating Poland as a sovereign state and not just a lapsed-client state.

The serious "strategic dialogue" the two countries are currently engaged in could serve as something of a trial run for Washington and Moscow.

On the face of it, the improved Polish-Russian climate might seem puzzling coming so soon after the flare-up of East-West tension over Russia's military incursion into Georgia last August.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has hardly forgiven the Poles for agreeing at the time to host American interceptors for the strategic missile-defense project that he loathes. Nor can he be happy with the parallel deal to station tactical air- and missile-defense Patriot missiles and their American crews in Poland, with the clear intent of deterring any Russian intimidation of Poland.

An explanation for the Kremlin shift can be found in the financial crash of last September, suggest both Undersecretary Grudzinski and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office. The crash was a brutal reminder to all players that in today's globalized world, everyone's future really is interlinked.

Putin has not talked publicly of reconceptualizing his foreign policy in the wake of economic reversals. But the selling price of Russian oil is down 70 percent from its high last July.

The ruble has lost 35 percent of its value. Capital flight from Russia has reached $40 billion. Under these conditions, Putin is in no position to carry out an assertive policy of reconstituting Moscow's "near abroad" of pliant neighbors.

Besides, adds Mr. Trenin, even before the financial debacle, Moscow discovered that the Russian Army's rout of the Georgian Army did little to restore the old Soviet sphere of influence elsewhere. Not one of Russia's skittish neighbors recognized the Russian-sponsored secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.

The clear message was that not even Belarusan or Central Asian potentates want the Kremlin to bully them the way it bullied tiny Georgia. Nor, continues Trenin, was the precedent of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence lost on the Chechen, Ingush, and other native populations in the north Caucasus that might themselves like to secede from Russia.

Could a tacit reordering of the perception of Russian interests in light of the financial crisis, then, meet Mr. Obama's explicit reordering of priorities half-way and revive the grand bargain that President George H. W. Bush offered Russian President Boris Yeltsin back when the Berlin wall fell?

That deal would have given Moscow a seat at top global tables in return for Moscow's acceptance of the voluntary rules-based international system the West developed after World War II.

Basic precepts of this system (even if they are not always lived up to) include restraint by big powers and renunciation of use of force without international legitimation. They also call for consensus decisions and readiness of strong nations to share the burden of maintaining such common goods as open and safe sea routes and suppression of drugs and human trafficking.

In today's world, a grand compact would probably start with defining common Russian-American interests in nuclear nonproliferation, arms control and disarmament, reversal of global warming, and neutralization of terrorist havens in failed and failing states.

Optimists see the opportunity in an outstretched Western hand and hope that Russia's greater civility toward Poles – and Putin's new-found willingness to forgive some Ukrainian oil debts – might even signal an incipient Kremlin preference for stability over the temptations of turmoil and mischiefmaking in neighboring lands.

Pessimists point out, however, that cool KGB graduate Putin is not the impulsive Yeltsin. They doubt that a man who calls the Soviet collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" would be satisfied with anything less than Moscow's old equal billing with Washington as the world's second superpower, a status that in today's messier post-cold-war world is no longer within Russia's reach.

Whoever is right, it would seem prudent to test the Polish hypothesis.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based author and journalist, is a former Moscow and European correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

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