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Hillary Clinton slams Russia over Georgia: Why Russia shrugs

Hillary Clinton criticized Russia's description of Georgia and Ukraine as part of Russian 'zones of influence.' During her five-nation visit to the region she also signed a missile defense deal with Poland. Why is Russian reaction so mild?

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US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen during a joint press availability with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, not pictured, at the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi, Georgia July 5.

Drew Angerer/AFP Photo/Pool/Newscom

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During her weekend swing through the former Soviet region Hillary Clinton pushed almost all of the buttons that, just a couple of years ago, would have had the Kremlin seeing red and sputtering with rage.

But the Russian reaction this time? Astoundingly calm, even muted.

Barely a year after presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev began a controversial "reset" of the volatile relationship between the two former superpowers, experts say that Russian leaders see Obama as the best possible US partner for Moscow and they don't want to say anything that could undermine him.

"We understand that the Obama administration has to save face [in the former Soviet Union] and head off its domestic critics on the right," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee. "Under the previous administration, the US took positions that are hard to back away from. But it's mostly just words."

Missile defense in Poland?

The Bush era plan to establish a missile defense system in Poland angered the Kremlin, and even after Obama shelved it last year the Russians were still voicing deep suspicions about US intentions. But Ms. Clinton signed a deal on Saturday to station S-3 interceptor missiles on Polish soil starting in 2015, and there was barely a peep out of Moscow.

Indeed, Mr. Medvedev sent a warm Independence Day greeting to Obama that made no mention of the missile defense scheme at all.

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"Constructive and good-neighborly relations between Russia and the USA" serves our mutual interests, he said. "In such circumstances, any attempts to belittle the importance of the agreements we reach or hinder our consistent efforts as partners have no future and are doomed to fail."

NATO expansion?

Expansion of NATO into the ex-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia appears increasingly unlikely after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia and the sharp pro-Moscow turn in Ukraine's leadership. Yet Clinton made a point of telling both Ukrainians and Georgians during her five-nation tour that "the door to NATO remains open."

But according to Mr. Klimov, "Clinton knows times have changed, and there's a totally different situation in the world now... She has a difficult task to perform, and why should we make it harder for her?"

In Georgia, Clinton slammed Medvedev's assertion that the former Soviet Union constitutes a "zone of privileged interests" in which Russia has a right to maintain its hegemony.

"The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said. "The United States does not recognize spheres of influence."

She praised the Kremlin's arch-foe, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose supporters won a thumping victory in regional elections last month, and slammed what she called Russia's "invasion and ongoing occupation" of the Moscow-backed breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

That comment, at least, brought a mild rebuke from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who told journalists Tuesday that "while some think South Ossetia is occupied, others think it is liberated."

Kremlin shows restraint

Experts say the Kremlin has been a model of restraint in the face of all this because it believes the Obama administration is going through the motions of reiterating Bush-era rhetorical positions, while going ahead full-steam to improve relations with Moscow.

"In every capital she visited, Clinton herself repeated that the US is committed to the reset of ties with Russia," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.

"In Moscow they see the Clinton visit [to Russia's fringes] as a way of responding to domestic conservative criticism, to show that Obama doesn't have a Russia-only policy," he says. "So these words of Clinton's are met with understanding here. Russian leaders believe Obama is the best possible counterpart to have in Washington, and they don't want to do anything to undermine him."

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