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The Kremlin Is Finally Listening to Obama

Last week’s spy swap would not ordinarily be worthy of discussion in this column. Although the story undoubtedly has the right stuff for an adventure film on NTV, it apparently lacks any deeper content. But the calm reserve that the Russian leadership maintained throughout the affair might indicate a substantial change in Russia’s foreign policy.

During his visit to Moscow one year ago, U.S. President Barack Obama announced what was essentially a new policy toward Russia. After listening to his speech at the New Economic School, the Russian elite, who are accustomed to viewing the world in black-and-white terms, were at a loss. What did Obama propose? A deep and lasting friendship or another Cold War? It seemed obvious that he was offering neither. The most common reaction to Obama’s speech was bewilderment.

Nonetheless, now that one year has passed it is possible to state with some caution that Russia’s political leadership has not only listened to Obama’s suggestions for a new relationship but also accepted some of them in practice.

Above all, Obama gave a broad description of the U.S. position regarding such questions as NATO, international terrorism and economic cooperation. He also said Washington would choose its course independently of Moscow, and that if Russia desired closer relations with the United States, it would get them. If, however, it wanted a new Cold War, it would get that instead. Everything, Obama said, depends on Russia.

That is why it was so difficult for the Russian elite to formulate a reaction to Obama’s speech. They are not accustomed to assuming so much responsibility. Russian policy toward the United States has always been purely reactive. The United States sets the course, and Russia responds to it. Now Washington has offered Moscow a full menu of options, along with full responsibility for its choice.

It was no great surprise that Obama took that position. His choice of Michael McFaul as his top Russia adviser was a sign that there would be neither warm hugs nor a new Cold War. The greatest surprise for me was that the Russian leadership apparently took Obama’s message seriously. For the past year, Moscow has not issued any antagonistic political initiatives and, at the same time, its policy toward Washington has become more realistic. In the end, Britain, Spain, Germany and Japan — all of whom were enemies with the United States at some point in the past 250 years — learned to live with the United States, neither merging with and becoming completely dependent on Washington, nor arguing with it over trifles. This task has been easier for Russia, a country that never actually fought a war against the United States.

As Obama must have hoped, a sense of responsibility for the fate of U.S.-Russian relations has begun to influence the decisions and words of the Russian leadership. The fact that the recent spy scandal did not lead to harsh rhetoric from Moscow — even for domestic political gain — proves more than anything else that the Kremlin is willing to take a new, fresh look at U.S.-Russian relations.

Konstantin Sonin is a professor at the New Economic School in Moscow and a columnist for Vedomosti.

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