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U.S. and Russia: The Talk Starts Here

11 minute read
Bobby Ghosh

It is not now as it hath been of yore. Summits between the leaders who live in the White House and the Kremlin once transfixed the world, as competing superpowers, ideologies and worldviews clashed. But when Barack Obama visits Moscow on July 6, it will be something of a rarity for the U.S. President: a rather dull trip. Obama will encounter no cheering crowds or overly excited local media. His hosts, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will be no more than coolly polite. The end of the visit is unlikely to be marked by grand declarations of friendship or announcements of breakthrough deals. Indeed, experts on both sides say the area where progress is most likely is in negotiations on the reduction of nuclear arsenals — the continuation of a process that began back in the Reagan-Gorbachev era.

Yet these are two powers which both straddle a continent, and which both have worldwide interests. Between them, let’s not forget, they own enough firepower to blow us all to kingdom come. The Cold War may have ended nearly 20 years ago, but the way the U.S. and Russia deal with each other still matters.

(See pictures of Russia celebrating Victory Day.)

Both nations want to find a new base for their relationship. They had a bitter falling-out over the weekend war in Georgia last August, when Russian forces invaded the territory of an American ally. That prompted intense criticism of Russia by the Administration of George W. Bush, and Russian officials remain deeply resentful at what they see as a refusal to accept that their military action was in response to intolerable provocation by the Georgian government.

(See pictures of Russia’s war with Georgia.)

It’s now nearly a year since that spat, time enough for passions to have cooled somewhat. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have said they want to press a “reset” button with Russia, while Moscow, for its part, seeks a normal, stable and predictable relationship with the U.S. But neither side knows where and how to start. “Both are trying to figure out what they can get out of the relationship,” says Coit Blacker, a Russia expert at Stanford University and former adviser to the Clinton Administration. “There’s a lot of head-scratching going on.”

What each nation most wants from the other is plain enough. The U.S. would like Russia to endorse and enforce tougher action to combat the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and to quit bullying democratic neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia. Russia would like the U.S. to recognize that it has its own sphere of influence in the “near abroad” — the territory of the old Soviet Union — and halt NATO’s expansion to the east. More generally, Moscow would like some respect. “The Russians want to belong. They want to feel big,” says Finland’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Stubb, who has met with both Medvedev and Putin since Obama’s Inauguration. “There’s a sense of greatness in Russian history, and that’s how they feel Russia should be treated.”

Russia, to be sure, is not entirely dependent on a U.S. endorsement to feel important. In mid-June, it hosted two summits in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg: one with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes China and four Central Asian republics, as well as observer states India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan) and the other with leaders of the so-called BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China. Medvedev was the first foreign leader to receive Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after his controversial re-election.

(See pictures of the aftermath of Iran’s election.)

Even so, there’s nothing quite like a visit by the U.S. President to bolster Russia’s status in the world. Moscow got an unexpected reminder of Washington’s clout in its backyard when Kyrgyzstan announced on June 23 that it would renew an American lease on its air base in Manas, a critical transshipment point for U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan. That decision was a victory for the Obama Administration: just four months ago, the Kyrgyz government had said that the U.S. military had to go. More broadly, Moscow’s ability to project its power has been reduced by the fall in the price of oil since last summer; nearly 20 years after the end of communism and the introduction of market reforms, Russia’s economy remains worryingly dependent on commodities.

Concern over the economy, indeed, may be one of the few things Obama has in common with Medvedev and Putin. For on the core issues, the countries remain apart.

(See pictures of Barack Obama’s family tree.)

A Threat or a Neighbor?

While Washington has watched Iran’s postelection chaos with growing alarm, Moscow has mostly looked the other way. Medvedev and Putin made no mention of the massive protests in Tehran or the allegations of vote-fixing when Ahmadinejad visited Yekaterinburg. That’s because Russia’s interests in Iran have always been strategic. “Iran is a special relationship for them,” says Eugene Rumer, a senior fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. “It is their entry point for Middle East politics. It’s a country they don’t want to upset.” Equally, Iran has cultivated Russia. The mullahs have supported Islamist insurgencies from Lebanon to Bosnia, but not in Chechnya, from which Iran has stayed away, in deference to Russian interests.

(See the top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms.)

Unlike the U.S., Russia doesn’t view Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat. “The Russians say, ‘We can live with a nuclear Iran,'” says Rumer. “They don’t want it, but think it’s going to happen anyway.” Rather than try to halt Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow has offered to enrich uranium for Tehran; the mullahs have politely turned that down. Russia is skeptical that sanctions will ever persuade Iran to change tack on its nuclear program — fearing, instead, that they will just embolden Iran’s hard-liners. And when all is said and done, Russia’s leaders may tell Obama they just don’t have that much leverage in Tehran. “Iran is not North Korea, and Russia is not China,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “That level of dependence and influence simply doesn’t exist.”

See pictures of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

See pictures of Iranian society.

The Near Abroad

Just as Russia won’t help much on Iran, Obama will likely tell Medvedev and Putin that America’s ties with Ukraine and Georgia are based on shared values — they’re both democracies — and strategic interests, including the protection of vital oil and gas supply routes. To underscore that point, Biden plans to visit Kiev and Tbilisi shortly after the President’s trip to Moscow. The Vice President’s visit, says Blacker, will “demonstrate to the Russians that we have equities in the region.”

(See pictures of Joe Biden.)

Officially, Moscow says it doesn’t mind the U.S. having friends among the former Soviet satellites. But Russia draws the line at either Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. NATO’s eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War — it now numbers three former Soviet Republics among its members, and most of the East European states that were once bound to Moscow in the Warsaw Pact — has been a dreadful blow to Russian pride. Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, believes a quiet agreement is possible: “Privately, Obama can tell the Russians that there are no plans to let these countries join NATO … but [Russia] can help by making it clear [it] will not attack or destabilize any of [its] neighbors.” Even a private agreement, though, would risk being interpreted as a betrayal by those in Georgia and Ukraine who seek the protection of NATO membership. Nor would it go down well in Congress, where there is broad bipartisan sympathy for both nations.

Back to the Future

When they met in London in April, Obama and Medvedev voiced an eagerness to conclude a new nuclear-weapons treaty before the end of the year, and the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which restricts the number of nuclear weapons both countries can deploy. This is an area where the two countries have a long record of negotiations: the two phases of START — the first ratified in 1991, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, and the second signed in 1993 — led to an 80% reduction in the worldwide number of strategic nukes. A follow-on treaty would probably trim the arsenals further. Experts think a deal is possible. “We’re in a strange ‘back to the future’ stage of relations with Russia,” says Strobe Talbott, a Russia expert, former Deputy Secretary of State and president of the Brookings Institution. “The one thing we can do business on is arms-control treaties.”

Recently, however, Medvedev and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, have said nuclear-weapons reductions are possible only if the U.S. drops its plans to expand its missile-defense shield into Eastern Europe. The U.S. argues that such defenses, including installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, are necessary to protect the West from a possible missile strike by Iran. The Russians don’t buy that. The shield, it thinks, is designed to give the U.S. an edge against Russia. “We don’t believe that any plans for [missile defense] have anything to do with the ‘Iranian threat,'” Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, told TIME recently. “For us … it relates directly to [the U.S.’s] own capabilities in the area of strategic offensive arms.”

Read: “Obama’s First Diplomatic Test.”

Despite the bluster, there is room to maneuver. One option would be for the U.S. to collaborate with Russia on missile defense. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told Congress last month that the Pentagon is looking at Russian radar systems to help monitor Iranian missile tests. A U.S.-Russian partnership, he added, would signal to members of Iran’s government “that they will face a concerted international front should they proceed down that path.”

The Measure of the Men

There are plenty of other issues that Obama will want to cover with his hosts — Afghanistan, energy, North Korea, climate change and trade. But perhaps the President’s greatest challenge during his trip will be to get the measure of Russia’s two rulers. Bush famously looked into Putin’s soul during their first meeting, in Slovenia in 2001, and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” a judgment that quickly looked hopelessly naive. Obama will want to gauge the true nature of the Putin-Medvedev duopoly.

See pictures of Putin.

Many Kremlinologists in Washington say the meeting with Obama may be Medvedev’s moment. The Russian President has long been seen as a cipher for Putin, his predecessor and patron. But some analysts think that the U.S. President’s prestige may rub off on his Russian counterpart. There is a chance that Medvedev, 43, might stand for something new. He is the first of Russia’s modern leaders never to have served as an official in the Soviet Union and has been showing some signs of independence from his former boss. “He’s trying to carve out a space for himself, a different space from Putin,” says Blacker.

Some Russians opposed to Putin believe a pointed display of respect by Obama could boost Medvedev. That, they say, would make it easier for the Russian President to distance himself from Putin’s ironfisted policies. It may, of course, be wishful thinking to believe that Medvedev can ever really be his own man, much less that he can put aside the suspicion of decades and forge a real partnership with the U.S. But it’s worth a try. For this truth hasn’t changed since the end of the Cold War: when Russia and the U.S. don’t get along, the rest of the world has every right to feel uneasy.

With reporting by Massimo Calabresi / Washington

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