Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Russian leaders now say they expect warmer relations with the U.S. in the coming years, but others here are divided over the prospects of improved ties.
During what has become an annual live televised question and answer session, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday that if positive signals from incoming Obama administration – including pledges to take Russia’s interests into account – are turned into practical policies, “then our reaction will be adequate and our American partners will feel it immediately.”
“We very much hope to see positive changes,” he said.
One of the “positive signals” cited by Putin was a decision by NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels this week not to move ahead on “membership action plans” for former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia. The Kremlin is bitterly opposed to further eastward expansion by NATO.
In another apparently conciliatory comment, Putin said Russia had no need for military bases in Cuba and Venezuela, a suggestion that arose earlier this year.
He added, however, that Russian warships could still undertake re-supply visits to ports in Cuba and Venezuela, as well as in other countries that he did not identify.
On the other hand, Putin criticized U.S. economic policies, saying the global financial turmoil had originated in the U.S. before infecting the rest of the world.
President Dmitry Medvedev also voiced optimism about the prospects of better relations with the U.S.
“We expect the new administration and the new president will demonstrate a constructive and reasonable position,” the Kremlin’s press-service quoted him as saying in an interview with an Indian media organization ahead of a visit to India.
Signals from Washington made him “moderately optimistic,” he said. “I do not think we face any new version of the Cold War.”
In recent years relations with Washington have chilled over a range of issues, including Russian objections to U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe; U.S. concerns about human rights violations and democratic backsliding in Russia; aspirations by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO; and rivalry – real or perceived – in regions Russia views as being within its sphere of influence.
Russian warships have been visiting the Western hemisphere for the first time since the end of the Cold War, and this week part in politically-charged joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy.
Politicians and analysts here have cautiously welcomed President-elect Obama’s recent cabinet appointments, although some warn that Obama’s foreign policy may not differ from President Bush’s as much as many expect.
Commenting on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s appointment as secretary of state, Mikhail Marguelov, head of the international relations committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, said “relations will not be easy but ties are likely to improve.”
Other top lawmakers voiced doubt. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international relations committee of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said it was unlikely policies would change for the first year or two.
“This administration will be hardly prepared for any foreign policy breakthroughs, including relations with Russia,” he predicted.
Kosachev said the appointment of Clinton, and Robert Gates’ re-appointment as defense secretary, hardly inspired optimism.
While Obama’s supporters voted for change, the appointments instead appeared to signal continuity in U.S. foreign policy, he said. Bilateral dialogue would be no less difficult than under the Bush administration, he said.
Some Russian politicians were critical of the conciliatory tone coming from the Kremlin. Communist Party head Guennady Zyuganov said Moscow must develop a stronger foreign policy.
The leadership’s foreign policy rhetoric was not reassuring because the Kremlin had yet to make a decision on whether to defend Russia’s national interests and confront the West, or surrender, Zyuganov said.
Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the Geopolicy Academy, a Moscow-based think tank, said Gates’ re-appointment seemed to indicate that U.S. policies would be repackaged somewhat but remain largely unchanged.
Obama would not be able to stop the missile shield program, he said. Only the economic crisis can do that.
Pavel Zolotarev, deputy head of the U.S. and Canada Institute in Moscow, also said Gates’ re-appointment raised some concerns due to his strong support for missile defense. Still, he said he was hopeful that Russia and the U.S. would be able to work out a compromise solution to the dispute.
Whatever the tone from the Kremlin, some military officials are keeping up the level of rhetoric when it comes to military challenges relating to the U.S.
Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, announced this week that Russia was developing missiles designed to overcome future space-based missile defense systems.
Solovtsov also said the U.S. would not be able to deliver a nuclear missile strike against Russia and then avoid a counter-strike by shielding behind a missile defense umbrella.
“The American concept of response-less nuclear strike involves a full neutralization of the Russian strategic nuclear forces by destroying all [of our] missiles,” he said. But the Americans would “never be able to realize such a scenario because the Russian strategic nuclear forces will be able to counter-strike under any circumstances.”
Due to the availability of mobile missile forces with an increased survival potential, Solovtsov said, “we are prepared to face the worst scenario in a nuclear conflict.”
The Pentagon has stressed repeatedly that the planned missile defense shield is designed to protect against lone missiles fired by hostile states like Iran – not against Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Moscow says it does not believe that assurance.