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Necessity pushes US and Russia closer

Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton
The smiles on show contrasted sharply with the later Bush years

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Moscow

Just a month ago relations between Russia and the US were at their lowest since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin blamed Washington for everything from the world economic crisis to the war in Georgia, even the New Year gas crisis with Ukraine.

The last time Condoleezza Rice came to Moscow as secretary of state, she and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov could barely look at each other, let alone smile.

And yet on Friday the same Mr Lavrov was laughing and joking with her successor, Hillary Clinton.

Despite appearances, Russia does not want America and its Nato allies to fail in Afghanistan

So has Russia suddenly joined the rest of the world in falling in love with President Obama? Well no.

The sudden change in relations between the US and Russia is being driven not by Moscow, but by Washington.

It is not because President Obama has forgiven Russia for its invasion of Georgia, or anything else. It is deeply pragmatic.

As one senior US watcher in Moscow put it: "President Obama has so many problems on his plate right now. Most of them are not easily resolvable. So he needs to resolve the few that are resolvable".

And one of those is Russia.

Vital supply lines

But perhaps an even bigger reason is that America needs Russia's help.

The biggest foreign headaches facing President Obama are Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. On at least two of those, Afghanistan and Iran, Moscow can help.

Vladimir Putin, file image
Mr Putin may not feel as bullish as he did a year ago

Take Afghanistan. President Obama is about to deploy 17,000 more combat troops there in the coming months.

They all need to be housed, fed, watered and kept in ammunition. It is a huge logistical operation.

But the main supply route comes up through Pakistan and across the Khyber Pass. In the last few months the route has been repeatedly attacked by Pakistani militants.

America needs an alternative. And now it has one.

Late last week a train loaded with US military supplies left the Latvian port of Riga, trundled across Russia, and by Tuesday was crossing Kazakhstan on its way to the Afghan border.

It was a clear signal of where US-Russia relations are going.

In the next few months hundreds more trains loaded with supplies for American troops will follow.

Russia's backyard

What, you may ask, is in it for Russia? Despite appearances, Russia does not want America and its Nato allies to fail in Afghanistan. Helping the US is in Russia's own interests.

The Kremlin has other priorities too.

Vladimir Putin has more important things on his plate than baiting Uncle Sam

First it wants America to scrap its plans for a missile defence system in Central Europe.

With the arrival of President Obama, Moscow now has real hope that such a goal is possible.

In return it will do what it can to pressure Iran into ending its long-range missile programme, although many in Moscow doubt whether Tehran will take any notice.

Russia is also in far less of a mood to be belligerent than it was a year ago when it invaded Georgia.

The world economic crisis is hitting Russia very hard.

Oil revenues have collapsed, the stock market is down 80%. The value of the rouble has slipped by a third, and unemployment is about to hit 10%.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has more important things on his plate than baiting Uncle Sam.

There is one issue on which Moscow and Washington still have plenty of room for disagreement.

In Russia it is called the "post-Soviet area". It refers to countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. These include Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the countries of Central Asia.

The Kremlin wants Washington to acknowledge that this is Russia's backyard.

As one analyst here put it: "The United States needs to understand that it is a guest in these regions and that we are the hosts."

But in the next few days the interesting thing is going to be watching to see how Russia's tightly controlled media explains to the Russian public why America is perhaps not to blame for everything wrong in the world after all.

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