One step forward

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

in Moscow

UNITED STATES President Barack Obamas maiden visit to Russia, on July 6-8, was the first test of the promise he made shortly after his inauguration in January to press a reset button on relations with Russia. Under his predecessor George W. Bush, U.S.-Russia relations hit a post-Cold War low. The two former rivals actually tottered on the brink of military confrontation last August, when the U.S. backed Georgia in its war with Russia and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) warships sailed into the Black Sea to demonstrate support for the regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had unleashed the conflict by attacking Georgias breakaway territory of South Ossetia. In the last six years of Bushs eight-year presidency, the U.S. and Russia did not hold a single full-fledged bilateral summit and hardly signed any binding treaties.

If viewed against this background, Obamas visit to Moscow was an unmitigated success. Russia and the U.S. agreed to expand their cooperation in the anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan and defined the parameters of a new arms pact. Both sides expressed the hope that cooperation in these two spheres would create a foundation of trust that should facilitate across-the-board improvement in bilateral ties. It was with this larger goal in mind that Obama and Dmitry Medvedev agreed to resurrect an inter-government body that was first established in the 1990s but withered under Bush. The new commission will have a higher, presidential status and will cover all areas of bilateral relations, from drug trafficking to arms control, and from energy to education.

The main agreement signed in Moscow was on Afghanistan. Russia allowed the U.S. to fly weapons, hardware and troops across its territory to Afghanistan. Under the accord, U.S. transport aircraft can make 12 flights a day (4,500 flights a year) through Russian airspace at no navigational charge and without any inspections. The White House said this would enable the U.S. to diversify its transport routes, move troops and supplies to Afghanistan more quickly, and save up to $133 million a year in transit costs.

The Russian and U.S. Presidents further signed a Joint Understanding a framework agreement to reduce the two countries nuclear arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads and delivery vehicles to between 500 and 1,100. The cuts will be formalised in a new treaty the sides aim to sign by December. It will be the first full-fledged arms control treaty between the two countries since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1), which was negotiated in the final days of the Cold War and expires on December 5. The two sides are still to overcome major hurdles on the way to the new treaty. One, they have to agree on the way to count warheads and missiles. For example, the Americans say they have about 2,200 warheads, whereas the Russians put the number of U.S. warheads at over 5,500. This is because the Pentagon counts only warheads that are deployed on the ready-to-fire missiles and discounts those warheads (and missiles, for that matter) that have been dismantled and stored. Russia is also opposed to the U.S. proposal that if long-range missiles have their nuclear warheads replaced with conventional warheads, they should be left outside the purview of the new nuclear arms treaty.

That said, the signing of the framework for a new treaty to replace START-1 was a big step forward, for it signalled a major shift in U.S. policy. The Bush administration had refused to commit the U.S. to any verifiable arms control pacts.

Russia and the U.S. agreed to resume military-to-military ties, which were suspended after the Georgia crisis last year, and to open a joint early-warning centre to share data on missile launches. The agreement to set up the centre was signed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin way back in 1998, but the Pentagon has been dragging its feet on it ever since.

The two Presidents also signed a statement on nuclear cooperation, pledging to bring into force a 123 nuclear pact that was put on the back burner by the Bush administration.

Addressing a joint press conference with Medvedev, Obama said that six months after the U.S. and Russia resolved to reset their relations, weve done exactly that by taking concrete steps forward on a range of issues, while paving the way for more progress in the future.

The Russian side was more reserved in its assessment of the summit. Medvedev said the two sides had taken a first but very important step in improving bilateral ties. The Russian Foreign Ministry, while hailing the summit as groundbreaking, stopped short of using the reset metaphor. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said the two sides merely managed to halt the degradation of our relations.

Moscows restrained reaction to the summit results is understandable. Strong disagreements persist on key issues of national security for Russia. From Moscows perspective, the main problem in Russian-American relations is that two decades after the Cold War was officially declared over the U.S. continues to treat Russia as an enemy, pushes NATO to Russian borders, surrounds Russia with a ring of military bases and supports patently anti-Russian regimes in former Soviet states. The U.S. has not renounced plans to deploy strategic missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic against the perceived missile threat from Iran. The proposed U.S. missile interceptors in Europe will be part of a global missile shield, which Russia views as a project designed to give the U.S. ultimate military supremacy.

Within days of Obamas visit, Medvedev reiterated the Kremlins position that it regarded U.S. missile plans in Europe as a security threat. If the U.S. moved ahead with its plans, Moscow would deploy deadly Iskander missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to counter the shield, Medvedev said. Even as they appeared to have made little progress on the missile defence issue, Obama and Medvedev held out a promise of compromise in the future. In a joint statement on missile defences, they pledged to continue the discussion concerning the establishment of cooperation in responding to the challenge of ballistic missile proliferation. They also stated that the sides are intensifying the search for optimum ways of strengthening strategic relations on the basis of mutual respect and interests.

I want to work together with Russia on a missile defence architecture that makes us all safer, Obama said in Moscow.

NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union poses a bigger challenge to the reset process than differences over missiles. Obama carefully avoided the issue in his public speeches and remarks in Moscow, but his chief adviser on Russia, special assistant Michael McFaul, bluntly stated ahead of the summit that the U.S. President was not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defence.

As a matter of fact, Obama did engage in some hard bargaining with Russian leaders. At least, the sides set out their positions on possible tradeoffs. A senior U.S. nuclear official suggested that Washington was trying to get Moscow to support tougher sanctions against Iran in exchange for progress on the nuclear arms pact.

If we make concessions on strategic nuclear issues, the Russians are much more willing to be cooperative when it comes to Iran, Gary Samore, Obamas special assistant for arms control, said within days of Obamas visit to Moscow.

Russia promptly rejected the option, saying it saw no reasons to link these issues or count on Russia being more cooperative in toughening sanctions against Iran if there is progress in talks with the United States on further cuts in strategic offensive weapons.

Moscow has its own ideas for tradeoffs with Washington. The Kremlin may be more interested than the White House in having a new arms reduction treaty because the aging Russian nuclear arsenals are shrinking anyway. But the U.S. is even more desperate to get Russia engaged on Afghanistan. The U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan are further away from victory today than at any point in their seven-year-old operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. With the Pentagon beefing up its contingent in Afghanistan and militants stepping up attacks on the main route for U.S. military supplies through Pakistan, the U.S. badly needs safe routes. And Russia came forward one step at a time. In March, it allowed the Pentagon to transport non-lethal supplies by train across Russia. During Obamas visit, Moscow agreed to open its airspace for U.S. military transit to Afghanistan. However, U.S. hopes that the military transit agreement would also cover land routes through Russia did not materialise. This could be a subject for the next round of bargaining between Moscow and Washington.

While Russia is willing to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, it does not want American military presence in Central Asia or elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Russia made its point clear when earlier this year its close ally, Kyrgyzstan decided to shut the only U.S. airbase in Central Asia. Since 2001, the base has served as a major logistic hub for the NATO forces in Afghanistan, handling about 15,000 personnel and 500 tonnes of cargo monthly. A week before Obamas visit to Moscow, Kyrgyzstan suddenly relented and agreed to transform the base into a transit centre. Medvedev praised Kyrgyzstans decision, saying it would help the joint effort of fighting terrorism. His message to Obama was: if you want us to cooperate on issues of concern to the U.S., you should accommodate Russian interests.

Obama has so far refused to remove two signposts of his predecessors policy on Russia support for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia and refusal to recognise what Medvedev described as Russias privileged interests in its neighbourhood. The sides remained sharply divided on the issue of Russias recognition of Georgias breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian leaders are aware that Obama faces a strong neoconservative opposition at home to his reset agenda with Russia.

Many of Obamas advisers on Russia, including Vice-President Joe Biden, are former Cold War warriors who advocate selective engagement with Russia. They dismiss Russias security concerns as an outdated habit of seeing the world in zero-sum terms and tout the yawning divide between the two countries in terms of values, as McFaul put it. It is McFaul-type advisers that must have persuaded Obama to try and drive a wedge in the Kremlin ruling tandem. Ahead of his visit to Russia, Obama praised Medvedev as a thoughtful and progressive leader that the U.S. can do business with, while describing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, his predecessor and tutor, as a man of the past who has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.

Apart from Putins ironic retort that Russians dont stand in bow-legged pose, the Russian leaders chose to ignore Obamas gaffe. The Kremlin rightly paid more attention to the fact that Obama put Moscow ahead of Tokyo or Beijing in scheduling his first foreign trips. It did not go unnoticed in the Kremlin either that Obama abandoned Bushs self-righteous rhetoric on Russias backslide on democracy even in his meetings with Russian opposition leaders and non-government organisations. Obamas hosts also appreciated his striving and ability to look at issues through the eyes of his interlocutor, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman. Medvedev said he found it easier to deal with Obama than with Bush.

What is important is that neither side allowed their disagreements to overshadow the summit. Both sides acknowledged the pressing need to reverse the deterioration in relations over the past few years. Both agreed to concentrate on issues where interests converged and to expand gradually the bilateral agenda to tackle more contentious problems.

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