Biden, Munich and Russia

When I first read the transcript of Vice President Biden’s remarks in Munich over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think the language with regard to Russia sounded remarkably similar to that of the Bush administration (prior to the Georgia War, anyway). So I was a bit surprised to see the Russians respond so warmly to it. Apparently, “press the reset button” translates better into Russian than “sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances” or “we will continue to develop missile defense to counter the growingIranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it iscost-effective.”

Granted, the formulation of that second sentence is tantamount to saying we’re about scrap missile defense. But it turns out I wasn’t the only one scratching his head. James Joyner at the New Atlanticist points out that while Russia has used issues as an excuse for challenging America, it has been acting on its interests. Stephen Blank made much the same point in his WPR Briefing yesterday regarding Russia’s stance on the Iranian missile threat and nuclear program. If they’re right, and I suspect they are, that makes hitting the reset button less effective, because while postures can be reset, interests are a bit more persistent.

Fortunately, the U.S. and Russia don’t only have opposing interests, but common ones as well. The question when it comes to those common interests, though, is who needs the other’s cooperation on them more? Here’s Joyner:

[Petersen] adds, “Obama must make it clear to Putin and Medvedev thatcooperation with the U.S. [on Afghanistan] comes with the trade-off of a greaterAmerican presence in Russia’s backyard.” While I think that’s right,realism requires recognizing that the reverse is true, as well. In theshort term, at least, much of Western Europe is dependant on Russia forits energy. And the United States needs Russia’s cooperation inefficiently meeting logistical requirements in Afghanistan. The priceof comity in these vital areas of interest is almost surely going to becompromise on lesser interests, such as NATO expansion and thesovereignty of countries in Russia’s “Near Abroad.”

Nikolas Gvosdev has a thought-provoking piece in the National Interest in which he questions just how concerned Russia really is about the possibility that America might fail to stabilize Afghanistan. Whether or not that’s actually true, I think the case for America needing Russia more than Russia needing America right now is a pretty compelling one, as is the case for Russia having a stronger position on the ground on just about every contested or cooperative issue (Afghanistan supply routes, Georgia and Ukraine, European energy supplies, and Iran’s nuclear program).

To my mind, this is something advocates of some sort of mythical hardline against Russia have yet to adequately explain. In the absence of incentive (i.e., compromise), how exactly do you change the behavior of a party with the proverbial upper hand?