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    Central Asia
     Apr 4, 2009
US-Russia ties on a new trajectory
By M K Bhadrakumar

Face-to-face meetings between the leaderships of the United States and Russia have a history of inspiring optimism that eventually turns out to be illusory and short-lived. The summit meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi a year ago was a perfect instance. The Sochi summit produced a grandiloquent declaration spelling out the contours of strategic cooperation between the two big powers.

But no sooner had the summit ended, acrimony broke out and US-Russia ties plunged into free fall. The ties grew increasingly strained. The conflict in the South Caucasus last August led to a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It added to the list of contentious issues already complicating the US-Russia relationship - deployment of components of the US missile defense system in

 

Central Europe, NATO's eastward expansion, rivalries over Caspian energy resources, simmering discords in the Black Sea region, and so on. Enveloping all these issues, an atmosphere of distrust descended on US-Russia ties.

A fundamental question also kept cropping up: how central is Russia to the US's global interests? Therefore, it is easy to understand why the high rhetoric of the meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in London on April 1 is being cautiously viewed by most commentators. Is the thaw for real? Will the US-Russia "reset" pick up speed? These are the questions of the day.

One thing is clear: US-Russia relations have deteriorated to their lowest point since the Cold War ended and they could only improve. Certainly, going by the uneasiness apparent in the assessments of the London meeting by the Cold Warriors, a new tone may well be appearing in the US-Russia relationship. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the relationship has acquired a "new quality".

Lavrov, an outstanding diplomat who is not given to hyperbole, said a "new atmosphere of relations" has been created at the London talks. "There is mutual interest, and, most importantly, readiness to listen to each other, something we had lacked for many years. This means a new quality of relations." That is good enough reason to anticipate that the London meeting may after all lead somewhere, instead of meandering into a blind alley in the coming weeks.

Clearly, the meeting has been more than Lavrov's modest summing up. The two sides evidently did a lot of preparatory work to ensure that the meeting became productive.

In the run-up to the Obama-Medvedev meet, apart from Lavrov's consultations with his US counterpart Hillary Clinton in Geneva on March 6, several high-level delegations traveled to Moscow for exchanges aimed at resuscitating the US-Russia relationship ahead of the meeting between the two presidents. These included visits to Moscow by the US Under Secretary of State William Burns, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and James Baker, former secretary of defense William Perry, former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, former senators Sam Nunn, Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel.

Meanwhile, the Hart-Hagel Commission's report on "The Right Direction for US Policy Toward Russia", which was released on March 16, also became the talking point in the US-Russia discourses. The commission made three principal findings: One, in recent years, US-Russian relations have deteriorated to their worst since the end of the Cold War. Two, an American commitment to improving US-Russian relations is neither a reward to be offered for good international behavior by Moscow nor an endorsement of the Russian government's domestic conduct. Three, it is an acknowledgement of the importance of Russian cooperation in achieving essential American goals: from preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, dismantling al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, to guaranteeing security and prosperity in Europe.

The commission's principal recommendations included: first, seeking to make Russia an American partner in dealing with Iran; second, working jointly to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime; third, taking a new look at the missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic and making a genuine effort to develop a cooperative approach to the shared threat from Iranian missiles; fourth, accepting that neither Ukraine nor Georgia is ready for NATO membership and working closely with US allies to develop options other than NATO membership to demonstrate a commitment to their sovereignty; and, fifth, launching a serious dialogue on arms control, including extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as well as further reduction of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

The purpose of the commission, as Hart put it, has been to "build a limited base in our country that will give support to the new [Obama] administration in its efforts to improve this [US-Russia] relationship". Before proceeding to Moscow, Hart and Hagel met with US National Security Advisor General Jim Jones and other senior US officials of the Obama administration. Surely, while receiving them in the Kremlin on March 10, Medvedev underlined that he felt encouraged by the signals coming out of Washington. "Unfortunately, our relations have degraded significantly over the past several years. We are saddened by this fact," Medvedev said. "We believe we have every opportunity to open a new page in Russia-US relations. The signals that we're receiving today from the US - I mean, the signals I'm receiving from President Obama - seem entirely positive to me."

Indeed, the statements (and actions) by Washington and Moscow during the recent weeks indicate that the two governments were moving in the directions urged by the Hart-Hagel Commission. The Commission argued,
Securing America's vital national interests in the complex, interconnected, and interdependent world of 21st century requires deep and meaningful cooperation with other governments ... And few nations could make more of a difference to our success than Russia, with its vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, its strategic location spanning Europe and Asia, its considerable energy resources, and its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Rapid and effective action to strengthen US-Russian relations is critically important top advancing US national interests.

Even as the US faces a profound economic crisis, the foreign-policy challenges facing our country are increasingly complicated and difficult - and our interests in dealing with particular situations can be competing or even contradictory. It is for this reason that we must make hard choices in shaping our foreign policy, focusing most on what is truly vital in a strict sense - first and foremost nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, terrorism, and global economic recovery.
With extraordinary candor, the commission proposed, "We must also significantly improve our understanding of Russian interests as Russians define them." The commission, in retrospect, virtually outlined the agenda of the London meeting. Therefore, while concrete results in London may appear slim, what counts is that a sustained and coherent effort to create a critical mass in the US-Russian relationship has begun, which may well solidify within the next two to three months.

Clearly, the decision at the Obama-Medvedev meeting to pursue a new nuclear arms reduction deal in itself implies a dramatic reversal of the obdurate stance by the George W Bush administration on this issue. As Obama put it, the decision marked the "beginning of new progress in US-Russia relations" after years of drift. The scheduled visit by Obama to Moscow in the next three months - ahead of the Group of Eight summit in Italy on July 8-10 - will give impetus to the negotiators to "start talks immediately" on an agreement replacing the START which expires in December.

The two sides have not settled on a new cap, but it is obvious that the proposed arms deal will go beyond the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which committed both sides to keeping their nuclear arsenals below 2,200 warheads by 2012.

Cold Warriors may interpret that the arms control talks constitute a major concession by Obama as it "elevates" Russia's status in the international community to that of a peer country to the US. But then, Obama realizes that without deep Russian cooperation, his entire non-proliferation agenda would fail to take off. To quote Obama, "Both the US and Russia and other nuclear powers will be in a much stronger position to strengthen what has become a somewhat fragile, threadbare non-proliferation treaty, if we're leading by example, and if we can take serious steps to reduce the nuclear arsenal."

True, the two presidents acknowledged that there were lingering differences over the vexed issue of the US deployments of missile defense systems in Europe. But, conceivably, they also realize that this is no more a pressing issue and future US-Russia cooperation may become possible. At any rate, Moscow knows that Obama doesn't have Bush's passion to advance the issue on US terms and also, public opinion in the Czech Republic is increasingly against the US deployment.

Equally, the tensions over NATO's expansion have eased as it transpires that the induction of Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance is simply out of the question for another 15-20 years at the least. Again, differences linger over issues such as last year's conflict in the Caucasus and the ensuing shifts in the region or Kosovo's independence, but these aren't exactly "hotspots" in US-Russia relations at the moment.

On balance, what gave substantial verve to the Obama-Medvedev meeting in London related to the US-Russia cooperation in Afghanistan. The joint statement of the two presidents mentions that they agreed to work together on Afghanistan since "al-Qaeda and other terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a common threat to many countries, including the US and Russia". The statement added that Moscow and Washington would "work toward and support a coordinated international response with the UN playing a key role". (Emphasis added.)

Significantly, the Russians played an ace card when on the eve of the London meeting they decided to offer to the Americans full, unhindered transit facilities via Russian territory by air and rail for the transportation of the US's (and NATO's) entire military cargo for Afghanistan. In essence, the Russian side has proposed that the US, if it chooses, may no longer have to depend on any other transit route, such as troubled Pakistan.

What emerges is that Moscow has sized up that the Obama administration's major foreign policy concern will be the stabilization of Afghanistan. And, there is nothing better that can stabilize the US-Russia relationship than if Russia were to offer full cooperation to the US in the Hindu Kush. (Incidentally, this approach is in line with the prognosis of the Hart-Hagel Commission.)

This is smart thinking on Moscow's part. It is based on the careful analysis that there is no real conflict of interests between Russia and the US in Afghanistan so long as the overall US-Russia relationship is based on sensitivity to each other's core interests and vital concerns.

This is evident if we check out the basic postulates of Obama's new Afghan strategy. The hyped new strategy - "stronger, smarter and comprehensive" - is essentially based on nine different postulates.

One, there is a fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two, al-Qaeda poses an existential threat to Pakistan. Three, Pakistan's ability to meet the al-Qaeda threat is tied to its own strength and security. Four, Pakistan needs US help, but must be made accountable while receiving such help. Five, the Taliban's gains in Afghanistan must be reversed and a more capable and accountable Afghan government needs to be promoted. Six, the "surge" should have both military and civilian components and they need to be integrated. Seven, the prerequisite of enduring peace is that there should be reconciliation among former enemies. Eight, al-Qaeda can be isolated and targeted on the pattern of the Sunni Awakening process successfully undertaken in Iraq. Nine, international participation is necessary, especially NATO's.

Moscow has no problems with any of the above parameters. So, the Kremlin shrewdly assesses that no harm comes to Russia's security interests if Russia helps the US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The odds are heavily stacked against Obama's Afghan strategy, but then, that isn't Russia's problem. To help a friend in need would make Russia a friend indeed of the Obama administration. The logic is simple, direct and, possibly, even workable, since the US faces a potentially serious political and military quagmire in Afghanistan and is in dire need of whatever help from any quarter.

On the other hand, if Russia succeeds in leveraging any resultant US goodwill for creating a positive climate of cooperation in the overall US-Russia relationship, it will have a profound impact on the international system. Regional powers will be keenly watching and may have already begun contemplating how to calibrate their own moves in Afghanistan. The stakes are especially high for Iran and Pakistan.


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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