If Obama reaches reconciliation with Russia in 2016 before leaving office, he will bequeath a worthy legacy to the next American president. To achieve this, he needs to understand and accept what the Kremlin wants in Ukraine.

United States President Barack Obama (right), and Russia's President President Vladimir Putin before a bilateral meeting Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, at United Nations headquarters. Photo: AP

The first rule of diplomacy, all too frequently ignored, is to look through the eyes of your opponent. So, in order to better understand how to deal with the Kremlin, the next U.S. President should understand how 2016 looks for Russia and President Vladimir Putin. In just a year’s time, U.S. President Barack Obama will have to hand over power to the next president. 

While there is much else at stake, for Russia it is primarily the situation in Ukraine, followed by the destabilization of the Middle East. The next U.S. president will play a critical role in both.

Any Republican president would, all but certainly, be a hardliner on foreign policy – a supporter of neo-conservative interventionism which, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, pushed through the invasion of Iraq with the help of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Right now, bets are on the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton as the likely next U.S. president. She too, is an interventionist – as Secretary of State, she presided over the overthrow of President Muammar Qaddafi, leaving Libya to disintegrate without the apparatus of effective government. And she too, as U.S. Senator, voted for the invasion of Iraq.

Russian and Western expert assessments of subsequent events after the invasion of Iraq broadly coincide. The invaders, seeking to maintain U.S. leadership in the Middle East, destroyed the machinery of government of Shia majority in Iraq – notably disbanding the largely Sunni Iraqi army. That stirred deep Sunni resentment, exacerbating the old Shia-Sunni schism in Islam.

This bitterness spilled over into Sunni majority Syria, leading to the Syrian civil war. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) then exploited the chaos with its fanatical Sunni extremism, which has spread throughout the world. 

So, for Russia, as for many other observers, the lesson is: If you intervene, preserve the machinery of government - that being preferable to anarchy. Hence Russia supports the Syrian government and President Bashar Assad, as long as he lasts. And both the present situation in the Middle East and the problem of ISIS are linked to Russia’s relations with the U.S.

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The present crisis over Ukraine originated with that same neo-conservative drive towards maintaining U.S. global leadership, which today neither Russia nor China can accept, nor even some representatives of the EU.

When Russia had recovered from the loss of the Soviet empire in 1991, President Putin, in his Munich speech in February 2007 to the 43rd Munich Security Conference, made plain Russian opposition to what he called U.S. “hyper use of military power.” At the same time, he offered cooperation on his own terms, that is, only if Russia’s interests were respected.

But he came to the conclusion that they were not, because he sincerely believed that the U.S. conducted operations in Ukraine in the winter of 2013-14 and entirely ignored Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space. Unfortunately, Ukraine, which should be a beneficent hyphen between the West and Russia, thus became the bone of contention.

So, seen from Moscow, how does 2016 appear? Regarding the U.S., the best result for Russia would be the election of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who has always opposed that “hyper use” of force by the U.S. – though ready to use it in defense of America’s true interests. He insists on resolving conflicts through diplomacy wherever possible, favoring “cooperation and collaboration.” In regards to Russia, he has gone so far as to urge Russia’s membership in NATO, or a revamped defence organization with Russian membership. He could well keep on John Kerry as his Secretary of State. 

But the likelihood is that one year – from this January to the next – will be critical for U.S.- Russian reconciliation over Ukraine. Already there are signs that in both Russia and the U.S. this prospect is taking hold. The Syrian crisis and the ISIS threat are demanding, if not forcing, close cooperation.

Moreover, throughout the past twelve months, John Kerry and Russia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, have met several times to discuss different problems, and in each case, they have also discussed Ukraine.

So how might negotiations bring about a Ukraine as that beneficent hyphen between Russia and the West? A major stumbling block appears to be Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But this could be turned into a stepping-stone to progress. Russia seeks to achieve recognition of Crimea as its own, given the peninsula belonged to Russia until 1954. So, the West holds a trump card but, strangely, one, which could help towards a Ukraine settlement. 

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Both the U.S. and the EU have no vital interest in Ukraine, only that it remain independent and viable. So, were international recognition offered for a Russian Crimea, would Russia refuse a return to closer relations with the West and implement fully the Minsk Agreement to end the war in Donbas? Would Russia not accept real progress for the current negotiations over Ukraine? And would not the Ukrainians, by a large majority, vote for a solution whereby Ukraine joins no military alliance but, instead, gives equal economic privileges to both the EU and Russia?

And on the American side in Obama’s last year, what can be expected? Despite Republican opposition at every turn, this is no “lame duck” president, but one determined to do all he can in his last year to restore America’s reputation in the world despite the disasters he inherited from President George Bush’s foreign and economic policies. 

He was elected to end the wars he inherited, only to find the damage was too great to achieve peace in only eight years. Now he needs – and seeks - cooperation in place of confrontation. He has won cooperation from the major powers: He has ended the isolation of Cuba much restoring the standing of the U.S. in Latin America – which is, in a sense, America’s vital interest rather like Ukraine is for Russia. He put America’s weight into getting the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Most importantly for mankind’s future, he got the critical consent of China to the unanimous agreement on climate change in Paris last December.

Now he is grappling, in concert with all the powers involved, with the Syrian crisis and the widespread diffusion of ISIS and its extremist ideology. For him, reconciliation with Russia is the last great challenge. So there is just a year for him to achieve that completion of a worthy legacy for a president.        

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.