Reset button hit, now actions must speak louder than words
Moscow’s mindset heading into the G20 Summit in London was cautiously optimistic: the United States has taken a nasty tumble from its superpower pedestal due to the disastrous collapse of the global financial architecture (which has, incidentally, blown away the sails on Russia’s oil windfall); NATO, the US-led military organization that celebrates its 60th birthday this month, is hearing an upsurge of complaints, many inside of European capitals, that it has outlived its function; Afghanistan, meanwhile, is increasingly resembling a replay of the bloody Soviet experience 20 years ago.
In short, it could be argued that America needs Russia’s assistance now more than at any point since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
So instead of aggravating the relationship between Washington and Moscow, the present case of American doldrums, which has pulled down the rest of the globe with it, offers an opportunity for increased cooperation between the two former cold war rivals. Although there were no reports of the leaders getting a sense of each other’s souls, as happened between former leaders George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin on their first meeting, Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama nevertheless hit it off very well in London.
Amidst a flourish of solid handshakes and smiles, the young leaders pledged “to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start.”
“We today established a substantive agenda for Russia and the United States to be developed over the coming months and years. We are resolved to work together to strengthen strategic stability, international security, and jointly meet contemporary global challenges,” read a joint statement from the leaders.
Although some of the promises were worn out and tired sounding (Russia’s coveted membership in the World Trade Organization, for example, which it has aspired to for 15 years, and “fighting terrorism,” the sworn mantra of the Bush years), other pledges, like an agreement to sign a new START-I nuclear arms reduction treaty before its shelf life expires in December 2009, came out smelling like roses.
The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) announced in a statement that its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, is “greatly encouraged” by Russian-US commitments to reduce nuclear arsenals and strengthen nonproliferation.
The United States will head into the negotiations with 5,576 warheads and 1,198 delivery systems on the table, and Russia with 3,909 and 814, respectively.
A time for action
There is no shortage of doomsayer political observers who think the sugar-coated promises exchanged between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in London will never be seen through to fruition.
Indeed, the Washington-Moscow relationship is challenged on all fronts, and not least of all on the strategic level.
Russia History 101 tells us that this sprawling nation of hardy people survived a nasty menagerie of brutal invaders over the past 800 years – from Genghis Khan, to Napoleon Bonaparte to Adolf Hitler. In other words, Russia could never be accused of being aloof when it comes to military matters. With this in mind, Washington is simply deluding itself if it believes that Moscow will not feel threatened or fooled by an American-made anti-missile system double-parked in Eastern Europe.
Some US observers argue that Moscow is being “unreasonable” when it suggests that the US missile shield poses a direct threat to its security, and that is probably why Russian generals do not consult western think-tanks before they make their strategic decisions. The US, of course, would feel no less threatened by a Russian-made system of equal capabilities (which has the ability to expand to other territories in the future, thereby possibly encircling Russia in the radar’s waveband) anchored somewhere in South America, for example.
But Moscow has option besides South America, and Medvedev said as much last November when he threatened to deploy Iskander-M missiles in the country’s westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, if the shield was put into operation.
The missile shield, which has not proven effective yet at anything besides irritating European-Russian relations, rightly ranked high at the G20.
“While acknowledging that differences remain over the purposes of deployment of missile defense assets in Europe, we discussed new possibilities for mutual international cooperation in the field of missile defense, taking into account joint assessments of threats, aimed at enhancing the security of our countries, and that of our allies and partners,” the leaders said in a joint statement after a pre-summit meeting in London.
Thus, it seems that before Moscow agrees to ink any agreement on the reduction of its already modest nuclear arsenal, the United States would be wise to do a re-think on its missile plans in Poland and the Czech Republic. Barack Obama has already said that he will consider not employing the system, which was the brainchild of the Bush administration.
In an interview with the Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Thursday, Sergei Rogov, a member of the Scientific Council under the Russian Security Council, said the missile defense system blocks any deep reduction in nuclear warheads.
“I believe we’ll be able to negotiate an upper limit of 1,500 warheads, but the cut to 1,000 warheads is unlikely until missile defense issues are resolved.”
Rogov expressed confidence that the new warhead treaty could be signed “as early as July” when Obama is expected to be in Moscow for talks with Medvedev.
Second, and no less worrying from Moscow’s perspective, is NATO’s eastern sprawl, which threatens to gobble up new real estate, most notably in Ukraine and Georgia, where Russia has just experienced its first post-Soviet war outside of its borders.
But now, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization experiencing its first ground war, in Afghanistan, since its founding in April 1949, Russia may be in a position of real influence, especially given Moscow’s first-hand experience fighting in Afghanistan, together with Barack Obama’s recently announced revised war plan that calls for about 17,000 US troops into the embattled country.
Alongside Merkel in Berlin, Medvedev promised to build a new dialogue with NATO.
“The full-format dialogue through the Russia-NATO Council will be resumed soon. On the whole, we welcome what is going on – we had never called for these relations to be restricted.”
Russia’s envoy to the military alliance, Dmitry Rogozin, earlier said the work of the Russia-NATO Council could resume “soon.” He also said the “period of estrangement” in the bilateral relations is “largely behind us.”
Now it’s time to see if actions will speak louder than words in relations between Washington and Moscow.