How Obama Bought Russia's (Expensive) Friendship

President Medvedev: Good relations have their price. David Paul Morris / Getty Images

Credit where it's due: Barack Obama's efforts to reset relations with Russia have worked exceptionally well. Thursday's meeting between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the White House marks the highest point of Russian-U.S. relations since Bill Clinton traveled to Moscow to mark Victory Day back in 1995. After a decade of being at loggerheads, Moscow and Washington have found common ground on a raft of core issues, from sanctions on Iran to missile defense of Europe and a de facto halt to NATO expansion in Russia's backyard.

The problem, though, is that all this good will has been bought almost exclusively at Obama's expense. The United States disappointed allies in Eastern Europe by scrapping plans to station missile-defense batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic, all in order to please Moscow. The Russian occupation of Georgia, America's best friend in the former Soviet Union, has effectively been acknowledged as a fait accompli by Washington, again to please the Kremlin. At the same time, Washington has remained silent about increasing crackdowns on freedom of assembly inside Russia and the ongoing second trial of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

And what has Obama bought with all these diplomatic sacrifices? The list is pretty short. Moscow has stopped trying to get the Americans thrown off their air base in Kyrgyzstan (it is crucial to U.S. operations in Afghanistan); it supported lukewarm sanctions against Iran last month; and it finally signed the START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty this spring. But so far, Obama's relationship with Moscow has meant a lot of give and not much take.

Presumably all these sacrifices are about achieving a real, lasting peace dividend—the terms of which the two presidents are negotiating in Washington. That means persuading Russia to align its interests closer to those of the West rather than with the rogue states—like Venezuela, Iran, and Syria—that former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin liked to flirt with. Michael McFaul, Obama's adviser on Russia, promises that "we're really going to dig deeper into a lot of these other dimensions," while deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes promises a "normalization" of relations across a swath of "leading national-security priorities—nonproliferation, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea." No serious diplomatic deals will be on the table during Thursday's meeting, but the White House clearly hopes that it will mark the start of a new phase of cooperation.

What will be on the table is a bevy of potential business deals. That suits both sides: from Washington's point of view, the more Russia is integrated into the U.S. and European economies, the less likely it will be to revert to Putin-era confrontation. And from the Russian side, much of the recent friendly tone adopted by Russia's leaders is motivated by an urgent need for Western capital and know-how with which to revamp Russia's moribund economy. Medvedev is due to visit California's Silicon Valley to drum up investments for his pet project, an "innovation city" outside Moscow. Russian Technologies also recently announced the $4 billion purchase of 50 Boeing 737s for Aeroflot; more large deals will doubtless be announced this week to give Medvedev a public-relations fillip at home.

There are lots more goodies, both economic and political, for Russia to pick up if this honeymoon blossoms into a marriage. A new deal working its way through Congress on civilian nuclear-energy cooperation could be worth billions to Russia. U.S. support for Moscow's accession to the World Trade Organization—something that American presidents have been dangling in front of Moscow since 1993—could be just months away. In return, Obama hopes that Russia will halt its military adventures (like the invasion of Georgia in 2008) and stop acting as the arsenal of dictatorships by curtailing weapons sales to Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and the like.

It's a gamble, certainly. But Bush-era policies of challenging Russia head-on—about human rights and Russian influence in the former Soviet sphere—backfired badly. So Obama's reset, with its heavy expenditure of diplomatic good will, may still be the best chance the U.S. has of making Russia more of a friend than an enemy.