With the same confidence that allowed the junior senator from Illinois to launch a campaign for the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama has decided to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations, banking on the forward-looking vision he shares with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev.
For the U.S. president this has been a high-risk operation, given the undercurrent of suspicion toward Russia within the U.S. strategic community as well as the citizenry. But the benefits are clear. The securing of transit rights through Russian territory and airspace for U.S. military materiel to Afghanistan, as agreed Monday, will reduce Washington's current dependence on Pakistan.
A further warming of ties also may encourage the Moscow-leaning former Afghan Northern Alliance groups to stop sulking and participate in the war against the Taliban. Leaving this struggle to the ethnic Pashtun groups alone would be a mistake that could cost Afghan President Hamid Karzai at least one-fifth -- if not one-third -- of his country. The Taliban has to be rooted out of both Pakistan and Afghanistan if the region is to have a chance at rapid social and economic development.
NATO's substantial outsourcing of Afghan strategy to the Pakistan army has resulted in the neglect of former elements of the Northern Alliance, despite the group's experience in fighting the Taliban. This should be rectified through reconciliation between the former anti-Taliban fighters and NATO, a process that the Obama-Medvedev initiative begun in Moscow on Monday could accelerate.
However, it may be a mistake to involve Moscow in training Afghan police, as has been suggested by the U.S. side. Just as the U.S. coalition with Britain aroused memories of British colonial domination in Iraq, any insertion of Russian forces into Afghanistan could spark similar memories -- giving the Taliban the lever they need to sell their war against modern civilization as the protection of Afghan freedom. Any Russian training of Afghans might be better done in Central Asia rather than within Afghanistan.
The warming of ties with the United States will give Moscow elbow room with Beijing, which until now has had a monopoly over major-country strategic engagement with Russia, because of the chill in its relations with the United States. While Beijing has emerged as the alternative pole for those capitals wishing to keep away from or even challenge the West -- such as Iran and Venezuela -- the Chinese Communist Party has combined this with a vigorous policy of engagement with the United States and the European Union.
This dual track has been visible in North Korea, where the Chinese rein has prevented a robust response to Pyongyang's continuing ratcheting up of the threat level in the peninsula. Thus far, apart from words, China seems to have taken very little effective action to bring North Korea into compliance with the rest of the international order.
In the case of Russia -- as has been true with India -- any warming of ties with Washington would be unwelcome news for Beijing, which would like to see other capitals do the heavy lifting against the West, while it adopts a policy of deepening engagement with the United States and the European Union.
The ideal situation for China would be for Russia to fall into the Iran trap and behave in such a manner as to make the United States and European Union shy away from collaboration. Tehran has paid a very heavy price for the isolation this policy has caused, being forced to import even refined petroleum products as a consequence of sanctions. Its international banking operations have been stunted for the same reason.
Fortunately, the Obama-Medvedev initiative has succeeded in pulling Russia back from this trap, although within the bureaucracy there are elements that are comfortable only with confrontation, no matter what the economic and social cost. It would be wrong to separate Medvedev from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, however. There is no way the Russian president could have made the progress he has with his U.S. counterpart without Putin's acquiescence.
Unlike 1992-97, when the United States failed to follow through on its promise of a full partnership, focusing mostly on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, this time around the United States needs to show that it is serious about broadening the areas of cooperation.
Obama's courage in moving away from the past indicates that a future that includes a U.S.-Russia partnership has a chance. Although battered, Russia is still one of the most significant global players, and its goodwill would help maintain stability in Europe and a balance of power in Asia. This is the reality that apparently led Obama to play Russian roulette. The bullet seems to have been missed and the point made: that Russia is an equal, worthy of U.S. friendship.
-(M.D. Nalapat is vice chairman of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO peace chair and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)