WASHINGTON, January 14 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama’s nomination of veteran Washington lawmakers John Kerry and Chuck Hagel for his next national security team portend a pragmatic approach to US-Russia relations in his second term but few prospects for breakthroughs, analysts said.
Obama has tapped Kerry for secretary of state and Hagel for defense secretary at a time of sharply deteriorating ties with Moscow over a US law targeting Russian officials accused of rights abuses and the Kremlin’s ban on US adoptions of Russian children.
“Pragmatism is going to be more important than ever on both sides, and this is a very good team to supply the needed pragmatism and try to stay away from an emotional reaction to any given event,” Cliff Kupchan, a Russia expert at Eurasia Group, a New York City-based risk consultancy, told RIA Novosti on Monday.
Kerry, a Democratic US senator from Massachusetts, and Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, have both been vocal proponents of bilateral cooperation with Moscow on issues such as counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, arms control and supply routes through Russia to US-led forces in Afghanistan.
But many of these issues are essentially “low-hanging fruit that was already picked” in Obama’s first term, including the New START nuclear reduction treaty and limited sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, said Simon Saradzhyan, a security expert at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
“In the abscess of a breakthrough in the old agenda, it’s unlikely there will be a qualitative improvement in the bilateral relationship unless Obama delivers a compromise on missile defense,” Saradzhyan told RIA Novosti.
US plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe have angered the Kremlin, which says the system would provoke a new arms race. Both Kerry and Hagel have made public statements suggesting the United States would be wise not to let missile defense stand in the way of other areas of bilateral security ties with Moscow.
Last spring, Obama promised Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, that he would have more flexibility in dealing with the missile defense issue in his second term-a message he asked Medvedev to pass on to Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta are also of the realist mold, Kupchan and Saradzhyan said, though Clinton irked Russian officials last month when she said efforts were underway to “re-Sovietize” Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
“Secretaries Panetta and Clinton also had a very clear-eyed and pragmatic approach to Russia, and I think that Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel come from very much the same orientation,” said Kupchan, a former US State Department official. “Personalities change, but I see the new appointments as heralding continuity, not change, in US-Russian relations.”
Like Obama, Kerry criticized Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for calling Russia the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe” during last year’s race for the White House.
Referencing a famous comment by 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Kerry suggested Romney’s Russia knowledge came from a trip by fictional boxer Rocky Balboa’s to the Soviet Union in Hollywood star Sylvester Stallone’s famous “Rocky” movie series.
In 2009, meanwhile, Hagel recommended that the United States “accept” that former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia were not ready to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The so-called “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia are widely seen in Russia as Western-orchestrated regime changes aimed at undermining Russia’s security. Both countries have angered the Kremlin by seeking NATO membership, which would bring the Western military alliance directly to Russia’s borders.
The third key nominee for Obama’s next national security team is John Brennan, whom the US president has tapped to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While Brennan is a Middle East specialist, he began his career with the CIA when the Cold War was in full swing and is certainly aware of Russia’s importance in issues ranging from nonproliferation and the US drawdown of its forces in Afghanistan, Saradzhyan said.
Brennan was also reportedly the person who briefed Obama on the 2010 arrest of a group of alleged Russian spies who were subsequently sent back to Russia in a Cold War-style agent swap on a Vienna airport tarmac.
Given that key breakthroughs in US-Russian relations are unlikely in Obama’s second term, the key priority for his new national security team will be to prevent a further deterioration in ties, Saradzhyan said.
The current row over the Magntisky Act, the US law banning visas to Russian officials deemed by Washington to be complicit in rights abuses, and the Russian adoption ban is unlikely to have any immediate impact on key bilateral security issues, Kupchan said.
“What I worry about is that this kind of serious disagreement can over time eat away at the foundations of a relationship,” he added. “If similar episodes happen, then my fear is that in reality, cooperation on vital national security interests will become more challenging.”