Obama Visits Russia

President Barack Obama is in Russia this week to meet with Russian leaders and reach agreements about several issues as part of an effort to improve Russo-American relations.  During a speech at the New Economic School, Obama claimed that Russia and the US share common interests.

But on closer inspection it appears that America and Russia share few foreign policy interests aside from preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists and perhaps reducing the size of their respective nuclear arsenals.  In other important areas, the two countries sharply differ.  Russia has long opposed NATO expansion and is vehement about its opposition to Georgia and Ukraine, traditionally satellites of Moscow, joining the Western alliance, whereas the US has been trying to minimize Russian influence in Eastern Europe and many American officials would like to see Georgia (which was invaded by Russia last year) and Ukraine join NATO (although allowing the union would be unwise from a military perspective).

Russian leaders also oppose the installation of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.  The US claims they are aimed at countering an emerging nuclear threat from Iran, but the Russian political-military establishment believes the ABM system is intended to weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Speaking of Iran, the former Cold War adversaries also have different interests when it comes to preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring atomic weapons.  The US wants to prevent a hostile power from joining the nuclear club, which in turn might precipitate nuclear proliferation in the Middle East if Arab nations feel that they need the Bomb to deter Iran.  Russia, on the other hand, has an interest in promoting instability in the region because doing so drives up the price of oil, which Russia has an abundance of and wants to export.

One puzzling result of recent talks is Russia’s decision to allow American military aircraft to transport weapons and other supplies across Russian airspace en route to Afghanistan, where the US and some of its NATO allies are fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  It is surprising that Russia would facilitate American intervention in a Central Asian state that used to be part of the Soviet Union, especially in light of the fact that in the past few years Russia has been more aggressive in trying to influence the policies of its former satellites, an effort which entails limiting American influence in those areas.  Perhaps the Russians are simply throwing the US a bone in a move to improve relations.

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