A moment of truth for Obama in Moscow
By M K Bhadrakumar
In the annals of Russian-American summitry, Moscow has never before
choreographed a welcoming ceremony for the visiting United States president in
this fashion. The dramatic run-up to the arrival of US President Barack Obama
in Moscow on Monday underscores the complexities of the context in which the
two countries are going through at the summit.
Russia has laid out its welcome carpet leading all the way from the rugged
Caucasus, a theater of events that is interesting in the highest degree to
US-Russia relations, to the Russian capital to receive Obama. It is a carpet of
intriguing design, laden with
compelling legends of the roots of conflict that acted as barriers to peaceful
co-existence between the two powers, and the wisdom and valor of taking arms
unseasonably without any unity of purpose.
Obama has only once been to Russia - on a US Congressional jaunt dominated by
Richard Lugar. Yet, a statesman like Obama with an acute sense of history will
not fail to take note of the excursion that awaits him next week. Washington is
not amused. Vice President Joseph Biden has scheduled a visit to Ukraine and
Georgia soon after the US-Russia summit in Moscow.
Tensions in the Caucasus
Russia began a massive military exercise, "Caucasus-2009" in the North Caucasus
area bordering Georgia on Monday. The week-long exercise is set to end on the
day Obama arrives in Moscow. Itar-Tass quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister
Alexander Kalmykov as saying the exercises are being conducted on a scale
similar to the Soviet-era drills.
Involving 8,500 servicemen, 450 armored personnel carriers and 250 artillery
guns and drawing units from the air force, air defense force, airborne troops,
the Caspian Flotilla and the Black Sea Fleet, the maneuvers cover a wide
territory including Krasnodar and Rostov regions as well as North Ossetia and
While the growing signs of Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus may partly
explain the logic of the exercises, an obvious purpose is to demonstrate
Russian firepower to prevent any adventurism on the part of Georgia against its
breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Clearly, Moscow is leaving
nothing to chance and is responding to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's
(NATO) exercises in Georgia in May, which President Dmitry Medvedev had called
a "provocation". Russia has not invited NATO observers to the "Caucasus - 2009"
Needless to say, there is pervasive skepticism among Western analysts whether
the "reset" of US-Russia relations that Obama administration had promised, and
the two presidents had endorsed when they met in London in April on the
sidelines of the Group of 20 meet, could commence at all in the current
Russian political analysts are even more skeptical. Sergei Karaganov, the
influential chairman of the Council for Russia's Foreign and Defense Policy,
feels the underlying nature of the concept of a "reset" itself is "extremely
"On the Russian side, there is more skepticism as Russia does not see real
changes in US policies and believes they are more of a cosmetic nature," he
said. The Russian feeling, Karaganov added, is that the US is "unwilling to
make substantial changes in their policies" on issues such as NATO expansion or
pan-European security. A report released in Moscow over the weekend underlined
that "just a reset" won't do in US-Russia relationship, but a wholesome
"reconfiguration" is needed.
A play on words? Not exactly. Meanwhile, American analysts have their own
litany of complaints about Russia - "this renewed sense of [Russian] pride" and
the ensuing "arrogance, cockiness, assertiveness, self-confidence and even
aggressiveness that is combined at the same time with paranoia, insecurity and
hyper-sensitivity," according to David Kramer, a senior US official in the
State Department for more than eight years.
What emerges beyond doubt is that no breakthrough can be expected out of the
summit in Moscow. But then, why is Obama going ahead with this "working visit"?
Washington has a pressing need to engage Russia specifically and selectively on
certain issues. A carrot is being held out that if Moscow could agree on some
or all of these handful of specific steps that Washington has on its check
list, there is a possibility that these agreements might then be carried out so
that the relationship could move in a more positive direction in the coming
In short, Obama's act of pushing the button to reset the moribund US-Russia
relationship during the Moscow summit is itself in doubt, while the promise to
do so remains on the table.
In an unusually tough "curtain raiser" to Obama's visit, Michael McFaul, senior
director in the National Security Council for Russian and European Affairs,
made it clear that the US president has "no illusions about the yawning divide"
between the two countries. He said Russian officials think of the world in
"zero-sum terms. The United States is considered an adversary ... and they
think that our number one objective in the world is to make Russia weaker, to
surround Russia, to do things that make us stronger and Russia weaker."
He added Obama will spell out the US national interests "very explicitly" on
such issues as NATO expansion. "We're going to talk about them very frankly ...
and then we're going to see if there are ways that we can have Russia cooperate
on things we define as our national interests."
The "things" that McFaul mentioned as principal to the US national interests
essentially narrow down to three priority issues in Obama's foreign policy:
strategic arms control with Russia, the situation around Iran and the war in
Afghanistan. However, there is no certainty that these are quite "doable"
issues, either. This partly explains the pre-summit grandstanding on both
By now it is clear that serious blocks may come in the way of negotiating a new
nuclear arms control agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
that expires December 5. Russia robustly opposes the planned US deployment of a
missile defense system in Central Europe and the long-term US plans to build a
global system. The issue is not what the missile defense system is currently
about from a technological perspective, but what it can turn out to be as the
US keeps upgrading the technology and brings it close to 100% accuracy.
An effective missile defense system fundamentally undermines nuclear parity
between the two powers and tilts the strategic balance prevailing for more than
six decades decisively in favor of the US. But it is impossible for Obama to
altogether jettison the US's missile defense program.
At best, he can delay it for two or three years (which in any case is warranted
due to the US's financial crisis at the moment). Equally, a hitch has surfaced
over what is called the "return potential" that the US wishes to preserve even
while agreeing on reducing the nuclear warheads. That is to say, the US wishes
to retain the dismantled 4,000 or so warheads in warehouses and also keep its
current 1,200 delivery vehicles (ground-based and submarine-launched ballistic
missiles and strategic bombers) as part of its conventional forces for any use
in a war.
Unsurprisingly, the Russians disagree. Simply put, Russia fears a huge double
disadvantage in terms of its own far smaller stockpiles of warheads and
missiles since its "return potential" is much weaker. That is to say, the
proposed nuclear arms reduction will only strengthen US military predominance
in exponential terms. With such huge superiority in the US's conventional
forces already, it is on its nuclear arsenal that Russia counts to maintain its
overall military strategy.
At the same time, Russia lacks the resources to build its own global missile
defense. Thus, Russia has drawn a "red line" to both the US deployment of the
missile defense system in Europe and the NATO's expansion. Russia's National
Security Strategy Until 2020, which was unveiled on May 12 explicitly states:
potential to maintain global and regional stability will be substantially
narrowed with the deployment of elements of the US's global missile defense
system in Europe ... The unacceptability for Russia of the plans to advance the
[NATO] Alliance's military infrastructure to Russia's borders and attempts to
impart global functions to it, which run counter to the standards of
international law, will remain the defining factor in relations with the NATO.
There is no doubt that the Moscow summit next week will announce some sort of
"progress" - most likely, a "report card" - in the negotiations leading to a
new nuclear arms control pact. Possibly, even a framework for a new accord may
be announced, as it is customary for US-Russia summits to produce some results.
But a final deal could still be hampered.
Differences over Iran
Given the recent unrest in Iran and Obama's stance on it, all eyes will be
focused on what the Moscow summit produces on the issue. No doubt, the US
desperately needs Russia's cooperation if it is to effectively pressure Tehran
in the coming period. But it is extremely doubtful if the summit in Moscow can
bring about any real US-Russian convergence over the situation surrounding
The common impression may be that the Russian position on Iran has shifted
lately. The Group of Eight (G-8) foreign ministers' statement issued in
Trieste, Italy, on June 26 condemning the violence in Tehran has been
interpreted to mean that Russia has joined ranks with the US and Britain. But
Russia has merely gone along with the consensus opinion, which is usual in
In fact, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the media at Trieste that while
Russia would express its "most serious concern" over the use of force on
protestors in Tehran and the loss of lives, "at the same time, we will not
interfere in Iran's internal affairs", as Russia "presumes" that the discords
"will be sorted out in line with the democratic procedures and laws existing
In real terms, Lavrov expressed understanding for the Iranian regime's stance.
Again, on the nuclear issue, Lavrov reiterated that "in all circumstances"
Russia insists on a peaceful settlement - even if there are "any changes in the
Iranian leadership's position" - and that the international community must
"show patience and follow our concerted policy". It was in this sense that
Lavrov evaluated the G-8 statement as "overall ... well balanced and useful in
On Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement, which virtually
pre-empts any attempt by the US to present any move to pressure Iran at the
Moscow summit. It read, "We [Russia] believe that sanctions against Iran over
its internal problems would be illegal and counterproductive. They could
provoke unwelcome developments in the situation in Iran and the region." The
statement reaffirmed the belief in Moscow that the emergent situation following
the disputed election in Iran should be normalized "through legal means" (which
is also the official stance in Tehran).
Reflecting the official thinking, the government daily Rossiskaya Gazeta also
featured an interview with the prominent politician close to the Kremlin,
Mikhail Margelov, who holds the position of chairman of the Federation
Council's 9parliament) committee on international affairs. Margelov said,
"Outwardly, this [unrest in Tehran] very much resembles the progress of 'color
revolutions' ... In any case, the international community will most probably
have to deal with the 'intractable' [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad for one more
presidential term ... I believe that no radical changes are to be expected in
the Russian policy in this connection."
A top Iran expert in Moscow, Radzhab Safarov, director of the Center for Iran
Studies, was explicit by saying the West, "led by the US", sought a regime
change in Iran and the protesters in Tehran "indeed are receiving finances and
all sorts of ideas from the West in order to bring them out onto the streets"
but of no avail. In an interview with the Russian government-controlled Center
TV, Safarov asserted that the Western attempts "don't threaten Iran's political
system which is as strong and consolidated as ever".
A tango in the Hindu Kush
In contrast with the divergent US-Russian perceptions regarding Iran, the two
powers have come much closer on the war in Afghanistan. As the Kremlin's senior
foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko put it recently, "We welcome the
increasingly transparent US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The space for
cooperation with the West on Afghanistan can be broader." Moscow sees
cooperation on Afghanistan as a key element in any effort to reset the
Prikkhodko underlined this saying that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO) would not "try to take over the initiative" in settling the Afghan
conflict from the US-led coalition. However, Russia seeks a stronger role. For
example, the effectiveness of fighting the drug traffic from Afghanistan is
falling rather than rising. "A stronger role means stronger responsibility. If
we claim a stronger role, that will ultimately take us towards taking part in
the international force. We are not going to send troops to Afghanistan. For
now the main responsibility for Afghanistan lies with the countries forming the
international forces. We are going there mainly to take part in construction."
That is, of course, a vast simplification of Russian policy. Moscow is
concerned that Washington is striving to expand NATO's presence in Central
Asia. Equally, the US has shut the door firmly on any form of cooperation
between NATO on one side and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty
Organization or the SCO on the other. Nor has Washington allowed Moscow to play
any significant role in the search for conflict-resolution in Afghanistan.
Washington continues to engage the SCO member countries individually on
cooperation with regard to Afghanistan. China and Kazakhstan have even been
invited to deploy troops.
Russia has, in essence, taken the initiative to muzzle its way by creating a
trilateral format with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The presidents of the three
countries held a joint meeting on the sidelines of the SCO in Yekaterinburg,
Russia, last month. A foreign minister level meeting since took place last
Friday in Trieste.
Moscow is seeing potentials in developing this tripartite cooperation. The
three foreign ministers agreed to intensify cooperation but "in line with other
initiatives of the international community".
They decided to explore the potentials of cooperation in certain specific areas
such as border control, exchange of intelligence relating to international
terrorism, training of anti-terrorist and anti-drug personnel, among others.
But, interestingly, they will also be promoting good-neighborly relations and
regional stability and seek economic cooperation, apart from expanding their
"interaction on matters of mutual interest" in the United Nations, SCO and the
Organization of Islamic Conference. The three foreign ministers also agreed to
"study and develop a common vision and common perspective for peace ad
development of the region".
In short, while not ruffling US feathers, Russia has developed an independent
track of its own vis-a-vis the two main protagonists of the US's "AfPak"
Moscow has shrewdly worked on Pakistan's extreme keenness to develop a
politico-military track to Moscow. Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kiani
was hosted in Moscow last month on a visit that was high in protocol. The visit
has been scheduled against the backdrop of the boosting of the US troop
presence in Afghanistan and the commencement of long-awaited military
operations against the Taliban.
What seems to be happening is that Islamabad has paid Washington in its own
coin for its continued attempts to involve India over the Afghan problem as a
concerned regional power, despite Pakistani objections. That Moscow has taken
the risk of annoying New Delhi by creating an exclusive regional format with
Pakistan points towards the acute geopolitical rivalries in the Hindu Kush.
A similar Russian approach is apparent in Moscow's decision not to oppose the
US tooth and nail in the latter's drive to retain some sort of base facilities
in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. This has led to a new formula whereby the US will be
allowed to operate a "transit center", with the existing transport
infrastructure preserved, while at the same time tripling the amount of fees it
pays to the Kyrgyz government.
Shooting down the media speculations that Bishkek acted suo moto without
Russia's concurrence (which is unlikely in terms of Kygyzstan's obligations as
a Collective Security Treaty Organization member country), Medvedev openly
stated that Russia regarded the Manas rear service base center to be integral
to the fight against international terrorism.
Yet another vector appeared a while ago in the nature of the Russian decision
to allow the transit of non-lethal military materials for NATO forces in
Afghanistan. On the eve of the US-Russia summit, Russian commentators have
hinted that "Moscow could do more by allowing the transportation of military
cargo to Afghanistan across its territory", apart from an increase in the
freight traffic along the so-called northern route.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said after the informal
meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on Sunday in Trieste, "As for military
transits, we have signed agreements with Germany, France and Spain. We are also
considering a request from Italy." Moscow is estimating that the US faces acute
difficulties in dispatching military and civilian freight to Afghanistan via
Pakistan as the US and its allies are losing currently up to 200 trucks a month
in transit due to militant attacks on the convoys.
Russia also sizes up that while the Americans keep talking of developing a
transit route via Georgia, this is easier said than done as new transport
terminals will have to be built or at the very least modernized along the
Caspian coastline; the new route will include double transshipment; and it will
also have to use rather worn-out Soviet-era rails. The ongoing construction of
the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway corridor may shorten the time taken
for shipment, but on the other hand, a need arises for the crossing of the
Caspian Sea and further transportation to Afghanistan, which means that route
can at best be only auxiliary.
Russian spokesmen have given the spin that in a globalized world where security
is indivisible and interdependence between nations is the compelling reality,
Moscow's and the US's interests are not only not clashing in Afghanistan but
are in fact coinciding. The argument follows that the present time is "no time
and place for a zero-sum game, while an early pullout of the US force [from
Afghanistan] will pose a threat to Russia’s national interests in a strategic
Central Asian region".
Therefore, Moscow must rise to the occasion as a responsible world power and
"tangibly help" Washington in resolving the Afghan problem.
The argument is not altogether sophistry. Moscow's general mood towards the
menace of terrorism is nowadays turning angry. The terrorist attacks in the
North Caucasus region show a sharp increase in number and ferocity lately. More
than 300 incidents of terrorism took place in North Caucasus this year alone,
which claimed the lives of 75 security personnel, including some high-profile
killings such as that of the Daghestani interior minister Adilgerei
Magomedtagirov in early June.
Medvedev paid an unannounced visit to Dagestan wearing a leather jacket and
dark glasses, and looking very tough, the youthful president took to some
earthy rhetoric usually associated with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "This is
extremism being supplied to us from abroad when various psychos come to crap on
our territory," Medvedev reportedly said in comments that were broadcast on
state television. "The work to bring about order, destroy the terrorist rabble
should be continued," he stressed.
Curiously, it is perfectly possible to replace what Medvedev said in the
context of what the US faces in Afghanistan. He said:
It is the poverty
of the population, the high unemployment rate, the huge scale of corruption and
systemic deformations in the [local] government administration when its
effectiveness drops, which leads to the loss of confidence and of the authority
of the state. It cannot be allowed… Anti-drug activities, in essence, go hand
in hand with the fight against terrorism. We understand that money of a drugs
nature, money received from the sale of drugs, ultimately goes to feed
terrorists. We are today at the situation when our neighbors, unfortunately,
supply us with problems of this sort. We should fight together with them
against these threats. Of course, this also complicated the situation in the
Through these labyrinthine maneuverings, and no doubt
borne out of the harsh realities of actual life, Russia hopes to create
leverage in the US-Russia relations by offering greater cooperation to Obama
over Afghanistan. It is entirely within the realms of possibility that at a
juncture when the overall US-Russia relationship is lurching dangerously close
towards a breakdown, cooperation in the Hindu Kush might just about provide a
much-needed leitmotif for the Moscow summit.
As Medvedev noted in a comment posted on the Kremlin website on Thursday, “The
new US administration under President Obama is showing its willingness to
change the situation and build more effective, reliable and ultimately more
modern relations. We are ready for this.”
Moscow will be calculating that it pays to help Obama ease the pain where the
wound hurts most at the moment and runs the high risk of turning gangrene. The
resultant goodwill will be useful to portray that US-Russia relations can still
improve in a serious, sustainable way.
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.