Why Russia is warming to the West

Stepping out of Putin's shadow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has made bold moves recently that tighten ties with Washington. Senate ratification of the new START treaty would give Obama a chance to complete the US-Russian 'reset.'

Shortly after his inauguration in 2008 as Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev was asked by The Financial Times whether he was a Westernizer or a Slavophile. His answer was dodgy: “The world has changed,” he said, “so my first priority is Russia’s interests.”

Two years later, in defending Russian interests, Mr. Medvedev seems nevertheless to be leaning to the West. Consider these recent Medvedev gambits:

Bold moves

•At the Lisbon NATO-Russian Council meeting last month, President Medvedev made a stunning concession by OKing Russian participation with NATO in developing a pan-European anti-missile shield.

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Moscow’s policy toward Iran is nowhere near as friendly as it once was. The Medvedev administration appears to be reexamining its erstwhile opposition to UN-enforced sanctions against Iran, thus bringing its policy toward the mullahs in line with that of Europe.

•This past summer, Medvedev personally met outside Moscow with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California. This get-together followed Medvedev’s extraordinary visit to California’s Silicon Valley last June. Reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s wholesale adoption of American production methods under the Five-Year Plans, the Medvedev Kremlin indicated that Russia would follow America’s lead in the information technology field – not China’s.

•It appears likely that Russia will finally be admitted into the World Trade Organization, possibly by next summer. Already, Russia is closing ranks with the Western European countries in the commercial and military fields. There is even talk of Russia joining NATO.

The 'reset' is working

In other words, the Russian “reset” that President Obama called for when he took office appears to be working. After a delay last year, the reset now appears to be booting up new East-West collaboration.

Accompanying these Medvedev moves is the fading of speculation about a possible third presidential term for Vladimir Putin in 2012 as a proverbial “Franklin Delano Putin,” as one Russian commentator put it. The Russian Constitution prohibits a “consecutive” presidential third term. Yet in two years, Putin will have completed a four-year time interval following his second presidential term, which ended in 2008 when he became prime minister.

Earlier this year, Putin, who is far less pro-Western than Medvedev, vaguely hinted at a presidential run in 2012. This set off a flurry of rumors and jokes: namely, that little “Mitya” (Medvedev) was the lackey of the macho “Vovochka” (Putin). If Putin chose to run, Medvedev would “obediently” withdraw as United Russia party candidate.

However, all belittling comments about Medvedev disappeared when he decided to fire the once-powerful Yury Luzhkov as mayor of Moscow in September. The bumptious, long-serving municipal boss of the Russian capital had published attacks against the president. That was intolerable. Mr. Luzhkov, a protege of Putin’s, was also accused of corruption. Here he was being abruptly replaced by the amiable Sergei Sobyanin, a former chief of staff to Putin and Medvedev.

The Kremlin’s new, westward orientation, like the turning of one of the two heads of the symbolic Russian eagle, does not mean that two-thirds of Asian Russia that lies geographically east of the Urals are now of lesser importance. For years, Russia has been supporting trade deals between itself and its “strategic partner,” China. Several important trade deals involving oil, natural-gas pipelines, and other resources have been concluded between China and former Central Asian Soviet republics like Kazakhstan. Moscow even sells advanced (but not state-of-the-art) military aircraft to the Chinese.

Anxiety over China

Yet there is an intense crosscurrent in the form of warnings about China. “Russia must develop Rapid Deployment Forces (RDF) in the Far East in order to stabilize any undesirable situation that might arise there while substantially improving relations with the West and the USA,” the well-known Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer has written. “The Chinese Threat,” a new book by popular conservative writer Oleg Glazunov, quotes Russian and Western defense experts with the warning that the Chinese “are developing RDF capability for carrying out offensive operations in the Pacific Basin.” Similar warnings come from Orientalists within the Russian Academy of Sciences. Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov adds his concern by describing China as a “natural” adversary of Russia.

Certainly, the eyes of the two-headed eagle are on a burgeoning China with a population almost ten times the size of Russia’s. China is potentially far more challenging to Russian interests in the Far East than, say, Japan was during World War II.

Yet as Moscow turns west, it is premature to imagine that Russia would lapse into another cold war with China on the pattern of the border and ideological conflict between them during the overheated 1960s. Today there is too much money riding on peaceful, bilateral, commercial intercourse.

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As Russian diplomacy toward the West and the US seems be tilting toward agreement on major issues, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently strongly criticized the North Koreans for their truculent brinkmanship and their refusal to halt pursuit of building a nuclear arsenal. This line contrasts starkly with Beijing’s equivocation toward Pyongyang.

Importance of the new START treaty

Obama did much to promote Russia’s emerging trust in the West this past April, when he and Medvedev signed the new START treaty that reduces the nuclear arsenals of both sides by one-third. He can galvanize that trust by persuading the Senate to ratify new START in coming days. If he succeeds, the “reset” will be complete, enabling a new – and potentially much more positive – chapter in US-Russian relations.

Albert L. Weeks is a professor emeritus of New York University and the author of several books on Soviet politics, including the forthcoming volume, “Assured Victory: How ‘Stalin the Great’ Won the War but Lost the Peace.”

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