President Barak Obama’s administration has been preparing a set of wide-ranging initiatives to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations. Nuclear arms control talks are planned to resume; NATO officials have told reporters that meetings of the NATO-Russia Council, which stopped last August after the Russian invasion of Georgia, will resume soon; and Washington has hinted that it may reconsider plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The Russian response to these overtures was overall positive but guarded (ITAR-TASS, March 4).
This week the first train carrying a cargo of nonmilitary supplies to the U.S. troops in Afghanistan passed from Latvia through Russia and into Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (Interfax, March 3). Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that German troops and military cargo would be transported to Afghanistan by rail. Russia has similar agreements with France and Spain. In the future Moscow may allow the same privilege to other NATO member nations including the United States (Vedomosti, March 4). Russia has clearly stated that it is ready to support the fight against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, conditional on Western behavior.
Last month Obama wrote to his Russian counterpart President Dmitry Medvedev, apparently proposing an agreement to abandon plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Moscow’s help in stopping the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs (Kommersant, March 2; The New York Times, March 3). The Russian response was unenthusiastic. Speaking at a press conference in Spain, Medvedev ruled out any deal to "swap" Iran for missile defense. The Kremlin acknowledged a letter from Obama that "contained different offers, but no concrete proposals" (Interfax, March 3). In turn, Obama admitted that his letter did not contain a specific proposal for a deal: "What I said…was that, obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for, or the need for a missile defense system." U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that Washington wanted to reopen discussions with Moscow on Iran. There were two options, he said—to work together to persuade Iran not to go ahead with its ballistic missile program, or make Russia a "full partner" in the defense shield (Reuters, March 4).
The Obama foreign policy team has demonstrated a grave misunderstanding of Russia’s intentions and misgivings. Russia cannot control Iran’s nuclear or ballistic aspirations; and from Russia’s point of view, this is just another U.S. trap: by tacitly agreeing, Moscow would simply give Washington a solid argument to go ahead with missile defense, using Iranian intransigence as a pretext. A nuclear and ballistic Iran is undesirable, but the U.S. missile defense plans are seen in Moscow as a much worse prospect. Russia does not want to be a "full partner" in building a missile defense shield. On the contrary, Russian Defense and Foreign Ministry officials have once again confirmed that Moscow is demanding that the United States fully scrap its global missile defense plans, which are felt to be aimed at Russia’s nuclear deterrent (Interfax, March 3).
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that Russia will not agree to prolong the START arms limitation treaty, which expires next December, while new arms-control negotiations continue (Interfax, March 2). According to the Russian General Staff, "the START treaty is extremely disadvantageous for Russia and should not exist." Russia will not agree to the radical reduction of strategic nuclear weapons put forward by the Obama administration, so long as the United States continues to develop a global missile defense shield. Russia is also demanding strict controls over the number of U.S. delivery systems, including cruise missiles (Interfax-AVN, March 3).
There is no quick fix in sight to mend U.S.-Russian relations while mistrust and misunderstanding are dominant and points of common interest are few and wide apart. There is not much common ground even with regard to fighting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Moscow does not believe the U.S. and its NATO allies have a serious chance for success in Afghanistan, despite the planned surge of new U.S. troops. In any event, future cooperation on issues the U.S. deems important is conditional on U.S. concessions on issues that are important to Moscow. In an article in an official government newspaper, Konstantin Kosachov, the chairman of the Duma Foreign Relations Committee, proclaimed that it was not true that Russia wanted to "return" Georgia, Poland, or the Baltic republics to "our sphere of influence." Instead, Moscow was interested in "specific things"—the deployment of weapons, the plight of Russian-speaking populations, and the possibility of renewed aggression. "This is not a question of influence but an essential response to foreign actions that concern our interests," Kosachov wrote (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 3).
Fair enough. The common language of all post-Soviet states continues to be Russian; there are also sizable ethnic Russian minorities and Moscow demands a right to look after all of them. Russia also demands veto power over the deployment of a Western military infrastructure, such as missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, in a region it is reluctant to call a "sphere of influence" by name but, according to Medvedev, is a "region of privileged interests" (www.kremlin.ru, August 31). A tacit recognition of such a region by Washington may indeed be a button to reset relations.