US-Russia summit: a meeting of minds, but not of souls

A breakthrough on arms control was achieved at the first summit between US president Barack Obama and the Russian leadership. However, the ‘reset button’ has yet to be pressed on the relations between the two countries. What the Russians really want the US is not prepared to grant, and what the US expects, Moscow is not willing to provide either.

by Dr Jonathan Eyal, Head of International Security Studies, RUSI

US president Barack Obama travelled to Moscow at the beginning of this week determined to reverse years of animosity with Russia.

He partly achieved this objective: Russia and the US are now pledged to cut their nuclear weapons.

However, on almost every other important issue, the two nations are still talking past each other. The Cold War may be history, but its long shadow refuses to lift.

The arsenals of Russia and the US account for a staggering 95 per cent of all the world’s nuclear weapons. So, any agreement to cut them is, as President Obama suggested, ‘fundamental not only to the security of the two countries, but to that of humanity’.

Eager to produce swift results, negotiators from the two nations adopted the simplest approach, by agreeing to utilise - or essentially continue with modifications – the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) already in operation since 1991. But, although the approach looks promising, it is hardly ground-breaking.

The period during which the two nations will be expected to cut their weapons is long: seven years from the moment a new treaty is signed. The deal only applies to deployed nuclear warheads; the question of stockpiles remains to be tackled.

Cuts won’t cut it

And the cuts are not that big. Russia and the US have already agreed earlier under the Treaty of Moscow in 2002 to keep no more than 1,700 to 2,200 warheads each. The current agreement lowers this further, but only by an additional 30 to 40 warheads for each nation. The US and Russia will still possess enough weapons to destroy each other many times over. More importantly, it is difficult to see how this agreement could put pressure on other established nuclear powers – such as China, France or the UK – to lower their own arsenals. And it is even more difficult to believe that the example provided by Russia and the US would persuade countries such North Korea or Iran to desist from acquiring their own nuclear capabilities. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) review conference next year may become a much easier affair as a result of this Russian-American example. Arms controllers everywhere will feel relieved that, at long last, they are back in business. But, apart from that, not much has changed as a result of the latest summit in Moscow.

Furthermore, the Russians are insistent that, as part of any nuclear cuts, the US should abandon plans to station anti-missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the Americans reject such linkages, largely because the Russians could use them as proof that Moscow continues to have a say over security affairs in Central Europe. So, even the current nuclear agreement between Moscow and Washington still has to overcome some important hurdles.

There was some progress elsewhere in bilateral relations. Russia agreed to open its airspace to supplies for the US troops deployed in Afghanistan. A new Russia-US governmental commission will also be created tasked with improving the whole spectrum of bilateral relations.

However, the list of unresolved issues remains just as big.

‘Talking past each other’

President Obama hoped to enlist Russia’s support on Iran. But the Russians are unwilling to endanger their lucrative trade links with Tehran, so the matter was barely mentioned in the final summit communiqué.

Nor was there any agreement on Georgia. Obama ignored a Russian request to rule out Georgia’s future membership in NATO. And the Russians, in turn, refused an American demand to guarantee Georgia’s territorial sovereignty. ‘I don't anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon’, the US President ruefully admitted.

Mr Obama used all his previous foreign trips in order to deliver keynote speeches, designed – as the White House once put it – to ‘change the narrative’, to persuade his hosts that the US is genuine in its desire for a completely new policy approach.

The US president’s speech to graduates of an elite Moscow university on Tuesday conformed to this pattern: it was cleverly drafted, sweeping in its aims, and full of gentle nudges. Mr Obama recognised Russia’s sacrifices in previous wars, and its historic grievances. Yet he also pointed out that ‘in 2009, a great power does not show strength by demonizing and dominating other countries’, a reference to Moscow’s demands to exercise a sphere of influence over its neighbours.

Presidential gaffes ‘duly noted’

However, the speech failed to get the attention it deserved. Russia’s TV networks did not carry it live, while a noted local media commentator mischievously summarised it as only an attempt ‘to put Russia in its place’.

Despite his meticulous preparations for the visit, Mr Obama did strike the occasional false note. On the eve of his arrival in Moscow, the US president attempted to make a clear distinction between Russian president Dmitry Medvedev – whom he praised as a forward-looking leader – and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom he criticised as having ‘one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new’. Mr Obama recovered from this gaffe by attending a breakfast meeting at Mr Putin’s home. Nevertheless, the offence was duly noted in Moscow.

Given their level of mutual suspicion, it was only natural that leaders of both nations should exercise caution.

The Russians, who were regularly disappointed by previous American offers, are in no mood for fresh love affairs with Washington. And President Obama, already accused by conservatives back home of ignoring America’s interests, also has to keep his distance.

Michael McFaul, the US President’s top adviser on Russian affairs, was apt in admitting that the summit represented just ‘a good start’ to what will be ‘the harder process of building the relationship in a more sustained way’.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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