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The U.S.-Russia Missile Defense Impasse

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 1, 2011

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Obama met privately   before the G8 meeting in Deauville, France, and discussed the longstanding dispute between the two countries over missile defense, says CFR Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich. Sestanovich says there were hints the Russians might be willing to make some compromises on missile defense, but he notes that they are wary of anything that sounds like the Reagan administration's Star Wars defense, which was intended to neutralize Russia's nuclear  deterrence. Another agenda item at Deauville was the World Trade Organization, says Sestanovich, who notes there will be no progress on admitting Russia to the WTO until its differences with Georgia--stemming from the 2008 conflict--are resolved. As for Russian domestic politics, Sestanovich says it is still unclear whether former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will run for the presidency next March, or whether Medvedev will be given Putin's backing. Sestanovich says it is up to Putin.

What happened in the meeting?

It focused on three separate topics. First the Middle East, meaning Libya and Iran. Out of that came Medvedev's comment later in the G8 meeting that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi has to go. They also talked about Russia's eternal negotiating over the terms of entry into the World Trade Organization. Nothing has emerged that suggests an early resolution of the problem. An administration official said later that difficult issues remain, and the most difficult of these is Georgia.

Because Georgia has a veto?

Georgia, like every other member of the WTO, gets to pass on Russian membership. They are unhappy because the Russians are, in effect, occupying two provinces of their country, Abkhazia and South Ossetia [as a result of the brief conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008]. The Georgians insist there have to be some adjustments of the border-control regime between Russia and those provinces, saying that there have to be Georgian officials there or international monitors. So far, the Russians haven't given any ground on this issue. But it's not just a question of the Georgians holding things up. The United States has suggested that it will not allow the Russian membership to go before the General Council of the WTO unless this issue is resolved.

And the third issue?

The third issue--where something may be happening, but it's not yet clear what--was missile defense. The U.S. side says they got "a new signal" on missile defense cooperation, suggesting that the Russians are interested in finding a way to cooperate on missile defense so that this doesn't become an issue that breaks the "reset" [the term used by Vice President Joseph Biden in 2009 to describe the U.S. desire to improve ties with Russia under the Obama administration]. The U.S. side says they're not going to accept anything that hints at constraints on our missile defense system, but they're eager to have the Russians join in cooperation. The line one U.S. official used was that the Russians should "get into the tent now," because if you work with us you will be reassured that there are no plans for missile defense systems that would threaten your security.

How important is it to the U.S. missile defense plans that Russia be part of it?

The United States wants a system that does not depend on Russian agreement to work. They want the missile defense capabilities that we acquire to defend us even if the Russians decide to opt out at the last minute. The Russians want a system in which they have essentially a separate key. That, of course, is a nonstarter for all of NATO. The Russians cannot have a veto over the effectiveness of the missile defense system that NATO puts in place to defend itself. So the Russians have to join on different terms, and the question now is, "What are those terms?"What kind of parallel and complementary systems could be devised so they produce more security rather than more anxiety about whether or not the Russians can be depended on?

That was a hot issue during the Bush administration. There's been improvement in the relations, but it's still a tough issue to crack.

The line one U.S. official used was that was that the Russians should "get into the tent now," because if you work with us you will be reassured that there are no plans for missile defense systems that would threaten your security.

The Russian's decision to go forward and seek cooperation apparently [began] last fall. What American officials refer to as Medvedev's "bold and historic contribution" to the NATO summit in Lisbon last fall amounted to a declaration that Russia would find a way to be part of this instead of standing aside. But this has been an issue for twenty-five years in Russian-American relations, an issue that many Russian political figures and national security policymakers have taken strong stances on. The Russian international security establishment is wary about anything that smacks of the old Star Wars promise to neutralize Russia's nuclear deterrence.

Even though this new U.S. missile defense is not aimed at Russia?

The U.S. line is this isn't just a matter of our intentions and of our declarations and our pledges; it's a matter of physics. The U.S. capabilities being discussed and contemplated do not impact the Russian deterrence. But what the Russians say is, "Yes, but what if ten years from now, you might decide to go further?"

Medvedev had some nice words to say about his relationship with Obama. What's going to happen when the Russians have their presidential elections in March 2012? Is it clear who will be the presidential candidate backed by the ruling United Russia Party? Will it be Medvedev or former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin?

It's completely unclear. Some people believe that Putin may not have made up his mind yet. But most people agree that it's Putin's mind that has to be made up and nobody else's. The administration has clearly liked the working relationship that has developed between Obama and Medvedev, and there would be some disappointment if they had to get used to a new guy--that is to say if Putin came back--but in diplomacy, one gets over these disappointments.

What do polls say? Is Putin still the most popular?

Yes, but they track pretty closely: When Putin's popularity goes down, Medvedev's tends to go down too, and he is typically a couple of percentage points below Putin. Russian and Western observers have been waiting to see whether there would come a time when Medvedev's popularity would be greater than Putin's, but so far it hasn't happened. When Putin's popularity goes down, you might expect that some of that would shift to Medvedev, but apparently that's not the way Russians themselves see it. When they lose a little enthusiasm for the one guy, they lose it for the other. This may be a specific insight into their relationship.

Is Russian politics still an authoritarian situation where Putin's United Russia Party rules everything (NYT)? How will it affect the parliamentary election in December?

The United Russia Party now has more than two-thirds of the parliament, which enables it to entirely dominate the proceedings in that body and essentially shut it down as a meaningful forum for decision-making. Some Russians--pollsters and political observers--have suggested that United Russia may not be the best vehicle for maintaining the status quo, the Putin-Medvedev regime that you now have. They think that they have persuaded Putin that that's the case. The polls do show that United Russia has lost quite a bit of popularity, and it didn't do too well in some regional elections earlier this year. Putin has announced the formation of a new grouping that he calls the "Popular Front," which is supposed to draw in what we would call centrist or swing voters to stem the defections from United Russia and to make people who are more comfortable with other parties ready to vote essentially for renewal of the Putin mandate. But what will happen with this popular front is still a little unclear. The spectacle of Russian politics in the last ten years is often not so pretty.

One group of opposition figures led by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov is trying to get registration for a new party called the Party of People's Freedom. They are trying to enlist international support--including from the OSCE and American members of Congress--to get registration. But Russian authorities have made it increasingly difficult for them to be registered, and the odds are against the formation of the new party. There's been an effort also to create an inside opposition under the leadership of Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who is best known to Americans as the owner of the New Jersey Nets. The idea here is not so much to run a true opposition but as a support structure for Medvedev-ism against Putin-ism. There's a lot going on, but much of it is going to involve disappointed hopes, because the United Russia folks really control much of the power. They decide who can register and who can run, and they cast the votes.

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