Obama’s Russian meeting may have opened a new chapter in U.S./Russian relations

President Barack Obama met this week with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev. While the two sides did not see eye-to-eye on all topics, they did mutually agree to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium, an initiative started in the 1990s and never completed. It’s a step in the right direction, says an expert on Russian identity at Washington University in St. Louis.

James Wertsch

“The agreement to reduce nuclear weapons by about a third is a major development,” said James V. Wertsch, Ph.D., director of International and Area Studies in Arts & Sciences. “It provides important movement toward the nuclear-free world Obama has talked about. The idea of ‘Global Zero’ is often called naive, but if the U.S. and Russia do not exert leadership on this front, we risk entering a new phase of very dangerous nuclear proliferation, one involving both state and non-state actors. The U.S. and Russia together have more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and as long as they do nothing to reduce these stockpiles, others feel little pressure to forgo building their own programs.”

Wertsch, also director of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University, has done extensive research in Russia and the Republic of Georgia. His work is concerned with collective memory and identity, particularly in Russia, Georgia and Estonia. He is currently working on several projects in the South Caucasus, especially Georgia. These include collaborating with colleagues on efforts to understand the emergence of civil society and democracy in the region.

He says Obama is right to have explicitly mentioned contentious issues that separate the two countries, particularly Russian threats to the sovereignty of countries like Georgia and Ukraine, which Russia continues to view as it’s sphere of influence.

“Russia and the U.S. have quite different ideas about themselves and their place in the world,” Wertsch says. “The different national narratives that underlie their worldviews mean that they will never agree on some things. But a new chapter in this relationship has been opened by acknowledging these differences and then moving on to address problems that concern the entire globe.”