U.S-Russia Relations "Reset" to be Tricky

President Barack Obama, left, meets with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Tuesday, July 7, 2009, in Moscow. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari) AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

This story was written by Josh Gerstein.
MOSCOW - President Barack Obama's efforts to "reset" relations with Russia were in full view Monday in his joint news conference with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev - but if their first summit is any indication, the two leaders are going to have to hit control-alt-delete a few more times.

Obama, admittedly, faces a daunting task. On top of 50 years of icy Cold War mistrust, he has to deal with the aftermath of high-level U.S.-Russia turbulence during the Bush years, a period that began with the former U.S. president adoringly gazing into Vladimir Putin's soul and ended with the Russians furious over the Iraq war, missile defense and a general feeling from Washington that Moscow didn't much matter in the neoconservative view of the cosmos.

Add to that the ongoing high-wire act that U.S. officials have to walk between engaging Russia and expressing alarm at its increasingly authoritarian character, and even the immensely charismatic Obama couldn't wave a wand and magically change the mood no matter how hard he seemed to be trying on the grand stage at the Kremlin.

The biggest achievement touted from the summit - and the only document the two men signed - was a nonbinding "joint understanding" setting target ranges for a new round of nuclear arms reductions.

But a look at the fine print shows the deal is less than meets the eye, experts said. The two presidents punted on how to count total weapons or total warheads - a crucial detail in the mathematics of arms reductions. And they committed in writing only to finish the deal "at the earliest possible date," though Obama said it would be done by year's end, when the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires.

"It's small progress. There are key issues being kicked down the road," said John Isaacs of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "There are a lot of details still to be worked out - a lot of devils still to go."

Isaacs also said he was troubled to hear of another fact the two presidents did not highlight: The framework reductions would take place over a seven-year period once the final treaty is done and ratified. "I don't know why it would take seven years," he said.

Another expert, Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the framework language dropping the number of permitted nuclear delivery vehicles to between 500 and 1,100 showed that the two leaders were making only modest progress.

"Things aren't going all that well. Otherwise there wouldn't be this big gap between 500 and 1,100," Gronlund said. "I don't know what audience the two presidents are speaking to."

If the deal seemed a bit rushed to coincide with the summit, the pressure to put hard numbers on the arms reductions actually came from the American side - a sign that of the importance Obama placed in being able to announce something concrete.

Given that, it's not surprising that the numbers in the deal announced Monday suggest that the Americans gave more ground toward the end of the discussions. The Russian daily Kommersant reported Friday that the United States was proposing a maximum of 1,500 to 1,600 operational warheads for each side while the Russian military was insisting on 1,700. The final number - a reduction to 1,500 to 1,675 warheads - came awfully close to the Russian negotiating position.

START, signed in 1991, expires in December along with the verification plan it imposes. A separate deal President George W. Bush and Russia's then-president, Vladimir Putin, reached in 2002 sets a range of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads but contains no verification mechanism. Obama and Medvedev did agree to set up a new verification plan.

The U.S. plan for a missile defense shield in Europe, which Medvedev suggested just days ago could b a stumbling block to a final agreement on nuclear weapons, was the subject of discussion during Monday's summit meetings. However, it was not mentioned in the joint documents related to the treaty framework.

U.S. officials painted that as a victory and said it signaled that the Russians would not use missile defense as a reason to block a possible treaty.

"I get a sense that we're really on track now to finish this thing irrespective of what happens with the negotiations about missile defense," said Michael McFaul, the National Security Council senior director for Russian affairs.

McFaul said discussions about Iran and missile defense dominated the one-on-one discussion between the two leaders.

However, when it came time for the public news conference, Medvedev couldn't bring himself to single out Iran, which purchases weapons and many other goods from Russia.

"There are regions around the world where the presence of nuclear arms would create huge problems," Medvedev said. "There is no sense in naming them. But it's quite obvious that on the situation in the Middle East, on the Korean Peninsula, will depend the climate throughout the globe. ... We should make our utmost to prevent any negative trends there. And we are ready to do that," he said.

Experts say the U.S. will have little success containing the nuclear threat in Iran without a full-court press from Russia.

"We're not going to be able to resolve the situation in Iran without Russia," former Defense Secretary William Cohen said last week. "Russia holds the key."

The summit's most concrete result was a deal to allow aircraft carrying troops and weapons to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan to overfly Russian territory. "That will save U.S. troops both time and money," Obama said.

To the extent progress was made at the U.S. Russian summit, it may have been due to Obama's efforts to build camaraderie with Medvedev. After a series of setbacks for democracy in Russia, Bush eventually came to regret saying he had looked into the depths of Putin's soul and saw a good man. Obama came close to that line Monday as he praised Medvedev, Putin's handpicked successor.

"I trust President Medvedev to not only listen and to negotiate constructively, but also to follow up - follow through on the agreements that are contained here today," Obama said, adding that he was "very appreciative."

In an interview with state-run Russian news agencies last week, Obama laid it on even thicker. "I've found President Medvedev to be a very thoughtful, forward-thinking individual. I think that he is doing a fine job leading Russia into the 21st century," the U.S. president said.

What is unclear is whether the man Obama is bonding with is really Russia's leader - or whether Putin, who became prime minister after leaving the presidency last year, is really calling the shots. Obama is scheduled to have breakfast with Putin on Tuesday.

Just last month, Putin stunned diplomats by announcing Russia was abandoning 16 years of negotiations to join the World Trade Organization. Putin said Russia wanted to make a joint entry with Belarus and Kazakhstan - a move analysts said would set back Russia's accession by two or three years.

U.S. officials said they were "shocked" by the move, which came as Russia was close to joining the tariff-reducing body. The official gave no indication that Medvedev's explanation of the reasons during the talks Monday shed more light on why Russia would turn back at the last moment.
By Josh Gerstein
  • Prerana Swami

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