Reset or Retread with Russia?
Today, President Obama will meet in Moscow with Russian President Dimitrii Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for a highly anticipated and critical two-day summit. There is hope that some progress will be made on an agreement to replace the 1991 START treaty which expires in December and on nuclear arms reductions. And just as Obama used his trips to Prague and Cairo to deliver major speeches, in Moscow he is scheduled to deliver what the White House is touting as his "third major foreign-policy address" in which he will lay out his ideas on how to move beyond the Cold War mindset.
But in order for the Obama Administration to truly "reset" US-Russia relations -- as it has expressly said it wants to do -- it will need to end the triumphalist thinking that has defined US policy since the end of the Cold War. Without jettisoning that stale approach, President Obama is at risk of losing Russia as a strategic partner in many of his foreign policy goals -- on nuclear disarmament, Iran, energy supplies and a host of other issues.
In an interview with Russia's leading oppositionist newspaper, "Novaya Gazeta," published Monday, Obama said he viewed Russia as an equal.
That is a good step. Yet, judging from news accounts on the eve of the summit we aren't going to see much of a "reset".
For one thing, any true reset would require that negotiations address the proposed destabilizing and provocative missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as "neo-containment" through the expansion of NATO to Russia's doorstep. (If NATO isn't a Cold War institution then I'm not sure what fits the bill.) As visionary former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in a recent interview on Russian television, attempts to station US missile defense bases in Europe were aimed at creating a situation in which NATO could be the first to attempt to launch a nuclear strike.
"I think that the people are right who say that this is probably to create a situation in which they can carry out a first strike under cover," Gorbachev said. He also stressed something that goes virtually unreported in the US media: almost all of Europe is against the stationing of the missile defense bases, including 65 percent of Czechs. Most important, Gorbachev said that what the world needs is not NATO expansion or the creation of ABM shields, but instead "joint European security" and "movement towards a non-nuclear world."
Yet last week Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior White House director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs, told the Wall Street Journal: "We're definitely not going to use the word ‘reassure' in the way that we talk about these things. We're not going to reassure or give or trade...anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense."
The last thing needed right now is this kind of preemptive broadside on two of the issues critical to any substantive reset.
For some history about the dangers of such an approach, Stephen F. Cohen's (full disclosure: my husband and a longtime Nationbook, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, explains that part of the reason any reset will require deft new strategies lies in the nearly forgotten history of the past two decades -- the historic opportunities squandered as a result of the US' "winner-take-all" attitude with Russia at the expense of a more stable and strategic partnership in world affairs. contributing editor and professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University) new
Cohen discusses current "widespread Russian mistrust of the US -- even more anti-Americanism than there was during the Cold War" as a result of the treatment of Russia since the 1990s as a vanquished country needing to acquiesce to US demands. Cohen writes that Putin and Medvedev "cannot ignore" that public sentiment, "especially given the political struggle now under way in Moscow." Any declared reset "will not be stable" unless the Obama Administration sets out a new framework that overcomes Moscow's "sense of betrayal and mistrust." In order to do that, President Obama will need to challenge members of his own foreign policy team, "many of whom contributed to or supported the Clinton-era triumphalist approach," Cohen notes. (Ironically, Secretary of State Clinton will be unable to attend the Summit due to her elbow injury.) Leading US editorial pages are also obstacles to real progress, "sternly warning Obama against making concessions or ‘capitulating' to the Kremlin."
The need for cooperation is perhaps most clear on the issue of reducing the nuclear threat. Last week at a press conference in Washington DC, the Global Zero Commission -- whose 23 members from nine countries include former Chief US Negotiator for START, Ambassador Richard Burt; former US Ambassador to Russia, Thomas Pickering; advisor to President Medvedev, Igor Yurgens; Russian Senator Mikhail Margelov; and former Senator Chuck Hagel -- released a draft of its step-by-step plan to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2030. (Both Obama and Medvedev endorsed the elimination of all nuclear weapons when they met in April, and as the New York Times reported, it is a long-held desire of Obama's.)
Senator Margelov said, "The world is nearing a ‘proliferation tipping point' when nuclear weapons spread beyond the capacity of any effort to rein them in and the chances increase that they will be used by a country or terrorist group. As long as nuclear weapons exist they will continue to spread. The only real solution to this global security crisis is the elimination of all nuclear weapons– global zero."
Afterwards, Ambassador Shaharyar Khan -- former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador of Pakistan to Jordan, the United Kingdom and France -- spoke on the importance of the Moscow summit and the potential obstacles to success. Khan pointed out that 96 percent of the world's stockpile of nuclear warheads are owned by the US and Russia and "the focus must be with them to start the ball rolling."
But he also said that real pursuit of the elimination of nuclear weapons "presupposes a climate of trust. And if I were a Russian, I would be a little perturbed. I would be perturbed at nuclear weapons being placed in Georgia and Poland, Czechoslovakia, Baltic States, etc.-- a perimeter around me. Why? What for? And you ask me to demobilize my bombs?... And the missile defense, NATO exercises, and all these things -- what are you trying to demonstrate? This does not move towards a climate of trust. Let us hope… we move away from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld position of ‘keep those guys under lock and chain'."
Khan's insight into Russian concerns is right on target. In fact, Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko told the Associated Press, "We would like the interconnection between START and missile defense to be described in the declaration signed at the summit." And yesterday, according to The Guardian, Russian officials indicated "that they had not been able to reach agreement on a… blueprint for nuclear talks", and Medvedev said "any new arms reduction treaty was definitively ‘linked' to the US's missile defence ambitions in central Europe."
This summit unfolds at a fateful juncture in US-Russian relations. Russia too has a new, young President under great pressure to be "tough." Obama's praise for Medvedev while criticizing Putin for still having "one foot" in the Cold War looks like a US effort to play internal politics and is likely to diminish, not strengthen, Medvedev's stature and influence inside Russia. Who's giving Obama this ill-informed and counterproductive advice?
The challenge before President Obama is clear: does he possess the new thinking and steely resolve to reset the relationship with Russia so that it is based on cooperation and mutual respect? As Cohen points out, the irony is that "the last US president to exhibit those qualities in adopting a new approach to Russia was Ronald Reagan -- an odd precedent perhaps for a liberal Democratic president, but a necessary one if Obama is to succeed."
For the sake of a safer world, we need President Obama to make the kind of changes that reflect his stated belief in a post-Cold War world. That means he will need to do more than talk about a reset button. He'll need to push it.
© 2009 The Nation