It would be wonderful if Barack Obama's glowing vision of warm and cooperative U.S.-Russian relations became a reality. But history hasn't been kind to such hopes.
Obama talks about hitting the "reset button" with Russia, and he's been passing out bundles of olive branches in Moscow this week. On Tuesday, he repudiated traditional conceptions of great-power rivalry and the notion "that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists and that a strong Russia or a strong American can only assert themselves in opposition to one another."
It takes two to tango, though. Obama no doubt believes what he's telling Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. But Russia's leaders aren't prone to idealism. If they regard the United States as a powerful potential menace – and they do – they may see Obama's effusive rhetoric as evidence of an untested president's exploitable naivete.
They have agreed to further cuts in each other's nuclear arsenals. That serves both American and Russian security interests; it's not a gesture of friendship. Neither country needs a big pile of militarily useless doomsday weapons, and reductions provide diplomatic leverage against the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
The one gift that Putin and Medvedev did hand Obama is permission to fly U.S. troops and weapons to Afghanistan over Russian airspace. That cost Russia nothing, and it gave Moscow a spigot it can threaten to turn off in the future to pressure the United States. Still, it's a rare and welcome instance of strategic cooperation.
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