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Russia And The West: The New Rapprochement

Diplomats in Washington and Europe see a major pendulum swing back toward good relations with Moscow. Will it last?

Putin and Obama (Mark Rain via Flickr)

PARIS - "One step forward, two steps back," Lenin once said. But there are signs now that relations between Russia, the United States and Europe may just be set to make one leap forward?

During the NATO summit in Lisbon last November, the Alliance's 28 members and Russia started a rapprochement that German chancellor Angela Merkel called "historic". On paper, two years after the war in Georgia and the amputation of part of this former Soviet satellite's territory by Russian troops, important progress has been made between Russia and the West.

Russia and NATO have agreed to cooperate on the project of common deployment of a missile defense system in Europe. A real revolution in comparison with the Bush years, which were marked by extreme tensions on the issue. Moreover, the Atlantic Alliance and Russia have decided to improve their cooperation in Afghanistan. Moscow will allow American troops and their allies to transport material and armored vehicles through Russian territory in order to avoid Pakistan. Both sides have also agreed to relaunch joint military exercises, which were put on hold during the summer of 2008.

On major 21st century challenges, Russia and the US increasingly have a common take on the world, whether it be nuclear proliferation, terrorism, piracy, natural disasters and human migration. It all looks as if Russia is on the doorstep of joining NATO, but without its military constraints, without its integrated command and probably without the solidarity of allies in case of an attack. On 95 % of today's major strategic questions, NATO and Russia are very close, noted a Russian official during a meeting in Paris.

The Russian-Atlantic thaw doesn't stop at military and security issues. It also relates to civil society and economy, as proven by informal meetings between industrial and political leaders. We can also mention the Kremlin's will to find a path to reconciliation with Poland by recognizing Soviet responsibility in the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn in 1940, thereby showing its commitment to easing relations with the European Union.

Beyond the short-term common interests, what is pushing this rapprochement is no doubt a major tectonic drift in global geopolitics: the economic and political rise of China and India; and, to a certain extent, the relative decline of influence of both the US and Europe's failure to prove itself as a real power.

Putin's Russia is no longer the wounded bear of the post-Soviet era, but a nation looking to regain its place as a great power. Moscow's fear of a US push on its doorstep, especially in Ukraine, died down with the return of a pro-Russian government in Kiev. At the same time, Washington abandoned its project to install, without consulting Russia, or its French and German allies for that matter, radars and antimissile batteries in the Czech Republic and in Poland. This helped ease Moscow's mind.

The better relations are also a direct consequence, two years after Barack Obama took office, of the "restart button" policy on relations with Russia.

The war in Georgia also played a role in this process. It proved "the numerous failures of the US's Russia policy," wrote Craig Nation, a professor at the US Army War College in a note published by the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). This crisis showed "how risky it was to maintain a relationship with Russia based on confrontation."

But the rapprochement is fragile. Suspicion on both sides hasn't disappeared. Without giving too much credit to the WikiLeaks revelation, the thoughts of Jean-David Levitte, President Sarkozy's diplomatic advisor, during a 2009 meeting with American diplomats, reveal a certain state of mind. According to him, Moscow tends to consider that "a good neighbor is a totally submissive neighbor."

The current thaw is not a first in the history of the two former blocks. In front of senators in Paris, French ambassador to Moscow Jean de Gliniasty mentioned four periods: the first under Mikhail Gorbachev, the second with Boris Yeltsin, the third after the 9/11 attacks and the current one. Though the first three failed, the diplomat believes the fourth one will be "lasting and irreversible."

But we can't yet be sure it will succeed. The main condition is political. The US Senate still hasn't ratified the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreed to by the White House and the Kremlin. Ratification may be just a small step toward getting rid of nuclear weapons, but it is an important sign of détente toward Moscow.

Republican success in the midterm elections in November doesn't bode well for a quick ratification of a treaty dear to the US President. Moreover, Russian nationalism hasn't disappeared. Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatened to start a new arms race if NATO and Russia didn't come to an agreement on missile defense mechanisms. The pendulum between Russia and the West has definitely not stopped and it could swing back at any given moment.

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