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Seeking Substance in Moscow

Author: Greg Bruno
July 6, 2009

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In April the metaphor was "reset," a reminder that U.S.-Russia relations had sunk to new lows during the final years of the Bush administration. But with President Barack Obama in Moscow for two days of meetings with Russian leaders, the focus is more on policy than rhetoric. "I'm using the word 'substance' as opposed to 'good' or 'bad' or 'indifferent,'" Michael McFaul, the White House's senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, told reporters last week. "We want to actually do real business with the Russians on things that matter to our national security and our prosperity."

Yet it remains far from certain how much actual business will get done. CFR Senior Fellow Charles Ferguson, in a new interview, says that so far only "incremental progress" has been made during what the White House had hoped would be a summit full of substance. Prior to the summit, CFR Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich predicted that U.S.-Russia talks on arms control would likely be marked by hard bargaining. He expected Moscow to use the arms control agreement issue as leverage against U.S. plans to build an anti-ballistic missile system in Europe, which Russia opposes. In their meeting on Monday, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed a replacement (Reuters) for the START-I arms reduction treaty, which expires in December. The two sides did reach a preliminary agreement on modest cuts (NYT) to each country's strategic nuclear arsenal, but that agreement makes no mention of defense missile systems.

A host of other thorny issues were on the table as well, notably NATO expansion to include Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia sees as an affront to its sphere of influence. Washington also sought more help on curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions; Russian cooperation is seen as key to weakening Iran's hand with sanctions and isolation. But Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution says common ground on this issue, too, will not come easy. "The Russians have a set of interests in Iran that they don't want to endanger, and the Russians also don't see the nuclear issue in Iran with the same sense of urgency and priority that Washington does." Indeed, Russia is slated to complete construction of Iran's Bushehr civilian nuclear reactor sometime this year (RIA Novosti), and Medvedev has spoken out against sanctioning Iran on its nuclear program (AFP).

Washington and Moscow have agreed to resume military-to-military relations, stalled since August 2008, and continue talks on a host of other bilateral issues. On Afghanistan, Russia and the United States also signed a deal allowing for the increased transit of U.S. military supplies to the Afghan war zone through Russian territory and airspace, helping to reduce what has been a logistical logjam in the U.S. war effort. Talks on trade (RIA Novosti), energy, and North Korea were also on the table.

Some observers warn against reading too much into the frenzy of joint statements. As the Financial Times notes, progress on arms control could unravel if the United States does not scale back its missile defense plans. But for the Obama administration seeking to recast ties with its Russian counterparts, arms control is no longer the only measure of success. "This is not 1974," the White House's McFaul told reports during a briefing last week. "This is not just where we go ... [to] do an arms control agreement with the Soviets."

Additional analysis:

- A new poll from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland finds that Russians have an exceedingly negative view of President Obama and U.S. foreign policy.

- The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace details what to expect from the Moscow summit (PDF).

- CFR's Charles Ferguson and Stephen Sestanovich preview the summit.

- Foreign Policy explains why the United States should pay attention to the vigorous debate taking place among Russia's intelligentsia over the country's political future.

- The Washington Post's David Ignatius says that neither the United States nor Russia is ready to address the other side's security concerns.

Background:

-          CFR Task Force report on nuclear weapons policy

-          Global Governance Monitor: Nonproliferation

-          The Jackson-Vanik Amendment

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