Andrew Nagorski on U.S.-Russian Relations

Even to some of the closest observers of Russian foreign policy, it's almost impossible to know which direction Moscow is headed. One day it's threatening to station missiles aimed at Poland in its western enclave of Kaliningrad; the next, it's proclaiming its eagerness to take up Washington's offer to press the "reset button" on U.S.-Russia relations. One day, it's vowing to help with supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan; the next, it's offering Kyrgyzstan some $2 billion in loans and aid, emboldening the Central Asian country to demand the closure of the U.S. air base there. One day, it's signaling its solidarity with Western efforts to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons; the next, it's refusing to rule out the sale of sophisticated S-300 ground-to-air missiles to Tehran.

All this raises a key question: at President Barack Obama's meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London on April 1, which Russia will he be seeing? Most likely, both leaders will accentuate the positive, voicing hopes for a new cooperative relationship between their two countries—and for good reason: Moscow and Washington have more in common than one might think.

For starters, both sides are eager for new nuclear-arms-control agreements that would allow them to scale back their arsenals and prevent a new arms race that neither side can afford in the midst of the current economic crisis. And the history of U.S.-Russian relations shows that talks on doomsday weapons tend to set the tone on all issues. A breakthrough on arms control could spill over into other fronts, including Afghanistan and Iran.

Moscow is more worried than it lets on about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, despite its major commercial and arms deals with Tehran. Like Washington, it is well aware of the potential wild card this could be. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons would have a huge psychological impact, raising the confidence of Muslims throughout the region—including in rebellious regions of southern Russia and the ex-Soviet republics over the border.

The same factor—resurgent Islam—makes the quest for stability in Afghanistan as important to Russia as it is to the United States. Washington worries that Muslim extremists could spark more terrorist attacks on Western targets; Russia is concerned that Afghanistan's failure would spill over into Tajikistan and other border states, where Muslim extremists would destabilize pro-Russian governments.

In one sense, Afghanistan is a live threat to Russia. Victor Ivanov, the head of Russia's anti-narcotics service, recently warned that a massive influx of heroin from Afghanistan is "a key negative factor for demography and a blow to our nation's gene pool." With Russia facing a sharp drop in its population because of alcoholism and an abysmal health-care system, the heroin explosion is only worsening the downward spiral. An estimated 2.5 million Russians are now addicts, according to the Ministry of Health.

Still, reaching any agreement with the prickly Medvedev– Vladimir Putin regime will be a struggle. The Obama administration is well aware of just how quickly U.S.-Russia relations can sour. When George W. Bush took office, he too expressed his eagerness for a new relationship with Russia. Then-President Putin reciprocated the sentiment. Yet the relationship soon degenerated into acrimony. After last summer's brief Georgia-Russia war, relations plunged into the deep freeze.

Russia's deteriorating economic situation may further exacerbate tensions. Over the past several months much of the wealth generated by soaring energy prices has evaporated, and the Kremlin has reacted furiously to the first manifestations of social discontent, dispatching Interior Ministry troops all the way from Moscow to the far-eastern port of Vladivostok to stamp out small protests.

Washington's greatest fear is that the Kremlin won't have the patience for talks and diplomatic cooperation, and will instead adopt a more confrontational posture to deflect attention from the mounting economic and social problems at home. In that pessimistic scenario, another conflict in Georgia or elsewhere could doom all hope for a better relationship. Worse yet, the Russians would go ahead with the sale of the S-300 missiles to Iran, setting off a dangerous sequence of events. Worried about the potency of those weapons, Israel could feel compelled to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities before they are deployed.

Though the Obama team has spoken of hitting the "reset button" in Russian relations, it knows the chances of a real turnaround are 50-50, at best. Its current strategy is to ignore the more negative signals coming out of the Kremlin and take the professions of good will seriously. It realizes that its best shot at changing course is now, when both sides have maximum incentive to start anew—but that there are no guarantees of success.