international analysis and commentary

Obama and Medvedev at the G8: what’s next for the reset?


The recent G8 summit held in Deauville, France confirmed Russia’s increasing role in international affairs and revealed the positive outcomes of the “reset” of US-Russian relations under the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the statements pronounced at the G8 need to be supported by renewed efforts and concrete political will as the struggle towards improved relations still lies on brittle ground. Past achievements, if not consolidated, will not be enough to prevent a possible deterioration.

Having fallen to a historic low after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, US-Russian cooperation is now on the rise. This was confirmed at the G8 – first through two new sub-commissions which were added to the other 18 working groups of the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission – which was launched at the 2009 Moscow summit with the purpose of strengthening cooperation between the two countries. US Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs, Robert Hormats, and Chief Economic Advisor to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Arkady Dvorkovich, will lead the new sub-commission on innovation. Alexander Konovalov, Russian Justice Minister, and Eric Holden, US Attorney General, will instead lead the new sub-commission on the rule of law.

Second, during bilateral meetings, the US and Russia agreed on closer collaboration in fighting terrorism. A joint statement released by presidents Medvedev and Obama announced a $5 million bounty for information leading to Russia’s most wanted criminal: Dokku Umarov. Umarov is the head of one of the most active terrorist cells in Russia, the “Caucasus Emirate”, which has regularly received funding and support from al Qaeda. Umarov has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist acts, including the bombings at the Moscow metro in 2010 and at Domodedovo International Airport in January. The United States also included Umarov in its Rewards for Justice program. The constant work of the Presidential Commission and the mutual support in the fight against terror suggest that the US and Russia are on a positive trajectory. Yet, at a closer look the situation appears more complex, and not so hopeful.

Obama and Medvedev made no steps forward on security issues, namely on nuclear missile defense. Reduction and elimination of this Cold War-era nuclear infrastructure is the largest part of the unfinished plan to leave behind the post-Cold War legacy. The reset was conceived as the initial step to overcome such legacy and the peak of its success was the New START Treaty, which was signed last year and aims at reducing the two powers’ deployed nuclear arms arsenals. Many analysts have observed, however, that in reality the contemporary security regime is still based on post-Cold War mutual deterrence – in fact mutual destruction.

Russia recently made a specific and controversial proposal on the design of a joint missile defense system, as a partial alternative to the one that the US is committed to building and operating with its NATO allies (EUROPRO). The Russian concept is based on the so-called “sectoral” approach, i.e. a territorial division of labor and shared responsibility between individual countries or groups of states for the detection and destruction of incoming missiles in a certain geographical area. The Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Nikolai Makarov, said on May 4 that Moscow was ready to discuss any constructive proposals for participation in EUROPRO. According to Medvedev, Obama’s response during the G8 to Moscow’s proposal was “disappointing”. The US President confirmed that the configuration of the future missile defense shield in Europe, which the US and NATO say is needed for protection against a potential attack by Iran or North Korea, should help maintain a strategic balance between NATO itself and Russia.

Medvedev also warned that failure to accommodate Moscow’s concerns will spur a new arms race. Moscow has vehemently opposed the US and NATO’s plans because the deployment of missiles near Russia’s borders diminishes the country’s capacity for a retaliatory nuclear strike if attacked by an overwhelming force. Likewise, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Anatoly Antonov, expressed his concern for the lack of progress in negotiations with the US and NATO on building missile defense in Europe. And the Russian military will inevitably develop a plan of countermeasures in case the US places a missile defense system near its borders.

Even beyond missile defense as such, a genuine interest in further integrating Russia in a common Euro-Atlantic security system did emerge in the G8 context. The Western leaders at the G8 openly asked Moscow to negotiate the resignation of Libya’s Muammar Gheddafi, confirming Russia as a responsible stakeholder in the international arena. Thanks to the absence of a colonial past in Africa, Russia’s role is credible in helping to solve the Libyan conflict. Russia’s role in the world is changing fast and moving away from the Cold War patterns. According to contemporary Russian leaders, a dynamical and modernized economy and the accession to the WTO represent some of the highest priorities to be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. Russia is therefore seeking closer relations with the countries that can assist in these goals, above all the United States. In this context, the time has come to finally leave behind the conventional strategic balance and agree on a new paradigm of Euro-Atlantic security that includes Russia, seizing the opportunity provided by America’s reset policy.

The recent G8 confirmed that problems and obstacles persist, partly due to domestic political constraints as both sides near presidential elections. On a positive note, on May 29 President Obama nominated as the new US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, the architect behind the reset and a key national security figure in the administration (Director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council). This choice is a sign of Obama’s enduring willingness to intensify ties with Moscow, although the future of the reset will depend on how convincing and firm both governments will be when faced with domestic opposition (most importantly in Congress in the US case) and a still widespread Cold War mindset.