President Barack Obama should have three central goals in mind when he meets Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin next week: first, to advance US-Russian co-operation in areas where our interests coincide; second, to emphasise the mutual benefits in handling disagreements between the two countries within internationally respected "rules of the game"; and third, to help shape a geopolitical context in which Russia becomes increasingly conscious of its own interest in eventually becoming a genuinely post-imperial partner of the Euro-Atlantic community.
Of the three, the first is the easiest; the second is sensitive but needs to be faced, lest there be repetitions of what happened last August, when Russian troops invaded Georgia ; and the third can only be sought indirectly - but the effort has to be strategically deliberate.
The bottom line is that Mr Putin resents and wants in some fashion to reverse the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Gaining control over Ukraine would restore in effect an imperial Russia, with the potential to ignite conflicts in Central Europe. Subduing Georgia would cut the west's vital energy connection (the Baku-Çeyhan pipeline) to the Caspian Sea and to Central Asia. Azerbaijan then would have no choice but to submit to Moscow's control.
Indeed, in the summit meetings, Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev will be looking for signs that the new US administration disowns the charters on partnership with Ukraine and Georgia signed by former President George W. Bush. Even an unintentional signal to that effect would be seen as a green light for more muscular Russian actions against these two countries.
Hence a frank discussion is needed to lay down some mutually accepted "rules of the game". The US can indicate that Nato membership is not imminent for either country, but that the US and Russia have to respect Ukraine's or Georgia's right to make that choice. In the meantime, Russia must understand that the use of force or promotion of ethnic conflicts to destabilise Ukraine or Georgia would poison American-Russian relations.
Clarity on these matters, achieved through respectful but realistic discussions, would reduce the risks of Russia trying to restore an imperial system in the space previously occupied by the Tsarist empire and then the Soviet Union. Gradual consolidation of the existing national pluralism in that space would accelerate the fading of historically futile imperial ambitions.
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