Analysts, EU Leaders Urge New Approach To Russia

As President-elect Barack Obama transitions into the White House, many world leaders are offering their advice. Over the weekend, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made clear he wants an early meeting with Obama to try to overcome this period of mistrust, and European leaders are hoping the new president will try a new approach when dealing with a resurgent Russia.

"When Russia flexes its muscles and speaks to us with Cold War accents, the smartest thing to do is to come up with a new form of dialogue," says French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who helped negotiate an end to Russia's brief war in Georgia over the summer. Right after Obama takes the oath of office, he will receive a letter from EU foreign ministers who are seeking — among other things — a change when it comes to Russia.

The Bush administration pushed hard to get former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine on a path toward NATO membership earlier this year, but Europeans are divided on the issue and don't want to see Obama push the same idea at his first NATO summit in April. The EU ambassador to the U.S., John Bruton, says the United States and Europe will want to avoid antagonizing Russia while giving some reassurances to former Soviet bloc countries now in the EU and NATO.

"We will insist on the protection of their integrity, their independence and their rights as European Union countries," Bruton says. "We will resist any attempts to induce such things as cyber attacks, which we have seen — probably emanating from Russia. But, equally, we realize we need to talk to the Russians; we need to reason with the Russians and respect the Russians."

Some analysts in Washington say it is also time to toss aside some of the core issues that have driven U.S.-Russian relations.

"The goal that has animated U.S. policy toward Russia, I would argue for the past 20 years — and that is integrating Russia into the Western community on Western terms — is dead," says Thomas Graham, who was on President Bush's national security team and is now with the international consulting firm Kissinger Associates. "Putin made that clear in February 2007. The Georgian conflict is an emphatic exclamation point on that matter."

When Medvedev spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations during the weekend, he made clear that he won't back down on the Georgia issue and that he is still angry over NATO expansion. But speaking through an interpreter, he tried to strike a somewhat conciliatory tone in a room full of U.S. foreign policy experts and old Russia hands.

"There is no trust in the Russia-U.S. relations, the trust we need," Medvedev said. "Therefore, we have great aspirations to the new administration."

The day after the U.S. election, Medvedev threatened to put missiles in Kaliningrad in response to U.S. missile defense plans in central Europe. He says he wasn't trying to blackmail the new administration.

"We will not do anything until America makes the first step," Medvedev said.

One thing the new administration will have to figure out is who they should deal with in Moscow: Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Fiona Hill, a government analyst who addressed this issue at a recent conference in Washington, says the Russian leadership doesn't operate in the same way U.S. leadership does.

"Informal networks have a much more important role to play than formal networks," Hill says. "We see this in the tandem between Medvedev and Putin — often the official positions of officials don't really correspond to their weight in the system. So we have to, in some respects, find a software plug-in, basically, between our two operating systems to find a way to talk to each other more clearly."

Most experts say the place to begin is arms-control issues and other areas where the two sides should be able to work together in a more pragmatic way.

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