Putin with Dmitry Medvedev, March 2008

This past summer's war in Georgia -- and its aftermath -- delivered a higher-voltage shock to U.S.-Russian relations than any event since the end of the Cold War. It made Russia an unexpected flashpoint in the U.S. presidential campaign and probably won Russia a place at the top of the next administration's agenda. Yet this is hardly the first time in the last two decades that Washington has buzzed with discussion of ominous events in Russia. Before long, the buzzing has usually subsided. Will this crisis prove different? Has Washington's thinking about Russia really changed, and how much?

At first glance, the change seems fundamental. Five years ago, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, said that the main difficulty in U.S.-Russian relations was a "values gap." The two sides were cooperating effectively on practical problems, he argued, but were diverging on issues such

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  • STEPHEN SESTANOVICH is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University and George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Ambassador-at-Large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.
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