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Obama's Summit in Russia: Which Side 'Blinks' First?

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 1, 2009

President Barack Obama's trip to Moscow from July 6-8 takes place at a time when both sides have said they want to improve relations. But CFR's top Russia expert, Stephen Sestanovich, says there are indications the summit could be marked by some hard bargaining on arms control issues, which are at the center of the talks. Russian officials have talked about linking any meaningful further agreement on downsizing nuclear arms to the United States dropping plans to put anti-ballistic missiles in Poland. "Some people in [the U.S.] government believe that the Russians think this is their moment to exploit Obama's interests in a successful summit and in nuclear arms control agreements that will help him to show that his aspirations for a nuclear-free world was a reality. The Americans' approach to this summit is actually a little more hard boiled. They're not prepared to make a lot of concessions merely to reach an agreement on START I [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]," Sestanovich says. "What we're going to see is a little bit of [brinkmanship] in the last few days before the summit, and at the summit itself. The Americans are going to say to the Russians, 'we're prepared to walk away.' We'll see who blinks first. "

At the end of last year, the United States and Russia were at a pretty tense moment. When the Obama administration came into office, Vice President Joseph Biden said in February it was time to "press the reset button" in relations. Now we're having a summit involving President Obama, President Dmitry Medvedev, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. What do the two sides expect to get out of this summit?

You're absolutely right that neither side liked where the relationship stood at the end of last year. There was enthusiasm on both sides for the idea of pressing the reset button. But that was a term without a lot of content. What the summit is going to test is whether you can "press the reset button," even if the two sides have different expectations and understandings as to what that means. Russia's view has tended to be that the United States has to renounce the policies that Moscow found most objectionable: NATO enlargement, missile defense [ in Eastern Europe]. The American view has tended to be that the relationship should be reset by reaching arms control agreements, above all renewing the START I treaty. NATO enlargement actually seems to be on a somewhat slower track now. The administration's budget for missile defense is down. On that basis, you could imagine a different and more productive relationship, but not if the Russians are determined to get explicit agreements about every aspect of it. They've been saying recently that they can't rely on political understandings. They need legal commitments.

"What we're going to see is a little bit of [brinkmanship] in the last few days before the summit, and at the summit itself. The Americans are going to say to the Russians, 'we're prepared to walk away.' We'll see who blinks first."

So they want the United States to say explicitly it won't put up these anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic, which are ostensibly aimed at possible missiles from Iran?

That's one of the big sticking points. Medvedev recently suggested that it would be difficult to have a START I extension, or a new treaty on offensive arms, without an explicit link to missile defense issues. Other Russian [officials] have said the same thing, although there's a recognition that right now the Obama administration's missile defense policy is less threatening to them. There's no possibility that the plans for Poland and Czech Republic are threatening by themselves. But the Russians want to test how much leverage they have. Some people in [the U.S.] government believe that the Russians think this is their moment to exploit Obama's interests in a successful summit and in nuclear arms control agreements that will help him to show that his aspirations for a nuclear-free world was a reality. The Americans' approach to this summit is actually a little more hard boiled. They're not prepared to make a lot of concessions merely to reach an agreement on START I. What we're going to see is a little bit of [brinkmanship] in the last few days before the summit, and at the summit itself. The Americans are going to say to the Russians, "we're prepared to walk away." We'll see who blinks first.

The Obama administration had been seeking dialogue with Iran to try to get it to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. The Russians have gone along with this, but haven't favored very severe sanctions. Now, given the disputed elections in Iran, I would guess this would be a major subject. Do you think that's right?

It has to be an important subject of the discussions, because the United States has put a high premium on getting unity at the UN Security Council on a strategy to increase pressure on Iran. But the question is how plausible that strategy is at this point. It's arguable that the internal upheaval in Iran has made a dialogue with Iran harder to pursue. There will doubtless be a discussion of this issue, but it may be a little less central and a little lower on the agenda than we would have expected a few months back.

Obama is going to give a commencement speech at the New Economic School in Moscow, which will have a number of prominent Russians in attendance. He likes to give these broad, sweeping speeches. What do you think he's going to talk about?

The expectation is that he will try to put his approach to Russian-American relations in the context of American foreign policy in general. He'll describe American views on security in the twenty-first century and how the United States will try to advance its goals including cooperation with Russia. He will  presumably address some of the questions of Russia's internal development that has been especially hard for American policymakers to handle over the past two years. This includes how to indicate American preferences for the advance of democracy without riling Russia's leaders. The New Economic School has presumably been chosen because it's a symbol of the most modern Russian thinking. It's a world class institution of research and instruction in economics. It produces top quality people. It's an institution that shows Russia can be competitive at a time when the Russian economy looks as though it depends entirely on energy exports. So it presumably will be an opportunity for the president to talk about how Russia and America can be modern partners. It'll also be significant for Obama because it will give us a picture of the kind of president he is when he sits down for hard bargaining with other leaders. This is something he really hasn't done in his previous foreign trips.

"What we can say is that [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and [President Dmitry] Medvedev are very close political partners and apparently close friends. All the same, the people around them do seem to have a different outlook about Russia's future."

There is a mystique about Russian-American summits, going back to Franklin Roosevelt's meeting with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in Yalta in 1945, to the first visit by a U.S. president to Moscow, in 1972, by Richard Nixon when he signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). Historians have always said that the meeting in Vienna between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev in the spring of 1961 was crucial because it may have led Khrushchev to think that Kennedy was weak, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis that autumn.

American presidents always have that Vienna example drummed into their heads by their advisers, and by pundits. They know that they're not supposed to go abroad and let some foreign leader bully them or underestimate them. And I think there's every reason to believe that Obama has heard that story himself. But the question is who is playing the role of Khrushchev here? It's surely not Medvedev, but it could be Putin. Putin is a little more in the model of Khrushchev: a more experienced leader, someone whose career has told him that talking tough to the Americans pays off. We may get something out of these meetings that suggest Putin has taken that approach. On the other hand, he probably knows that it didn't go all that well in the end for Khrushchev [he was removed from power in 1964]. Putin's advisers might be telling him that he should be the reasonable guy and make Medvedev to be the bad cop.

Russia announced last month that it was no longer seeking World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, but was instead going to seek membership for a customs union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Why did it do this so suddenly?

People in Russia and in the West are still scratching their heads about this. The decision to withdraw Russia's membership application for the WTO was announced personally by Putin, and it was seen by many as a repudiation of the idea that Russia had to be a part of the international economy of trading arrangements. There's been speculation of all kinds. Some people see this as a move to allow Russia to take some protectionist measures that wouldn't be allowed by the agreement that had been reached with the WTO. Other people have said that this is a way Putin can show he's the only policymaker worth considering when dealing with Russia, and that he wanted to send that message specifically to Obama. What we can say for sure is that the decision came at just the moment when it seemed as though almost all of the obstacles to Russia's acceptance had been removed. People close to the trade negotiations say that it was imaginable that Russian accession could be completed in a couple of months. Putin took  the wheel and turned the policy in a completely different direction. Many Russian economic policymakers are aghast at what has been done.

How do you see the relationship between Medvedev, an economist, who was handpicked to be president by Putin who couldn't run again, and Putin, who more or less named himself prime minister. Does Medvedev bow to Putin, or is he trying to get more daylight between himself and Putin?

There's even more speculation on this than on the WTO accession. What we can say is that Putin and Medvedev are very close political partners and apparently close friends. All the same, the people around them do seem to have a different outlook about Russia's future. So you've had squabbling among the entourages. The advisers who favor a more Western-style modernization with a greater emphasis on the rule of law and more commitment towards combating corruption see Medvedev as their advocate and their hope, and Putin as a symbol of proto-authoritarian Russian politics. The Putin people answer back that Putin has overseen a significant revival of Russian growth and stability. We don't really know whether this back and forth has infected the personal relationship between Putin and Medvedev. We may get some indication of it at the summit.

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