international analysis and commentary

Obama-Medvedev: putting pragmatism to the test


The latest US-Russia summit was marked by pragmatic agreements on nuclear arms control and military cooperation, but the re-establishment of security dialogue does not necessarily mean a complete shift from the respective and diverging geopolitical concerns, as confirmed by the disagreement on the missile shield in Eastern Europe.

The meeting held in Moscow right before the G8 summit has successfully set the guidelines for a new treaty on nuclear arms control. The “joint understanding” signed by the two presidents envisages that “within seven years after this treaty comes into force, and in future, the limits for strategic delivery systems should be within the range of 500-1,100 units and for warheads linked to them within the range of 1,500-1,675”. The agreement outlined is strategically important because the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed in 1991 includes a compliance and verification system. START expires in December 2009 and, as a result, a new treaty on nuclear arsenals is necessary to avoid a dangerous “vacuum” in the arms control bilateral regime. In particular, the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) stipulated in 2002 also relies on START for enforcement. The guidelines agreed by Obama and Medvedev pave the way for negotiations on a detailed and legally binding text. In that sense, the deal reached in Moscow has a meaningful strategic rationale and relevance.

However, the reductions envisaged by the two leaders have little to do with the Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Indeed, the future limits on nuclear warheads (1,500 – 1,675) are close to the current ones (1,500 – 1,700). That means that the real amount of the cut will depend on future choices by both parties: if they decide to keep their nuclear arsenals close to the higher level allowed by the new range (1,675 warheads), the reduction compared to the lower threshold currently permitted (1,700 warheads) will be marginal. In contrast, if they will move towards the new lower level (1,500) the cut will be more significant. In any case, the nuclear arsenals permitted by the agreement allow Russia and the US to maintain an effective mutual nuclear deterrence. In addition, the timetable and the long-term commitment set up by the deal imply that further reductions of nuclear capabilities are considered unnecessary and unlikely at least in the next decade.

The agreement’s rationale seems more related to public diplomacy and economy than to the dream of a nuclear-free world. First, regarding the public diplomacy aspect, the deal represents a success for both presidents: Obama can now claim the “reset” of the relations with Moscow, and Medvedev can prove to his domestic public that Russia is again a superpower which negotiates vis-à-vis with the US on equal foot. At the same time, the compromise reached on nuclear arsenals enhances the credibility of the counter-proliferation efforts on the international stage. Secondly, the reduction of both nuclear warheads and delivery systems implies the cut of related costs, which is welcomed by governments financing expensive military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq or costly modernization of their Cold War-aged armed forces.   
A second significant result of the summit regards Afghanistan. Obama has obtained permission from Medvedev to fly US troops and weapons across Russian territory to Afghanistan. That means that NATO forces can now utilize a crucial supply route that is safer than the Pakistani one. Considering the importance attached by the new Administration to the “AfPak” issue, the increasing US military efforts in Afghanistan and the long-term perspective of the allied engagement in the country, this agreement is quite important for American foreign and security policy, as well as for the ISAF mission. In the Russian perspective, this move is part of a larger and more complex strategy towards Central Asia. Moscow attaches great importance to its sphere of influence in that region and has been irritated by the American military penetration there following the invasion of Afghanistan. Consequently, the Kremlin has successfully sought to reduce American influence by pressuring former Soviet Republics, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, to revoke the authorization of US military bases granted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In this context, the full use of the Russian space by the US military does not necessarily imply a stable American military presence in the region, rather it provides a precious bargaining “chip” for the Kremlin which now indirectly controls one crucial supply route for the allied armed forces in Afghanistan.

The common will to re-establish a complete security dialogue is also demonstrated by the decision to resume the bilateral, high-level, military cooperation suspended after the conflict between Russia and Georgia last August. Nevertheless, this reopened dialogue does not necessarily mean agreement or cooperation on all the dossiers, as epitomized by the issue of the missile defense shield planned by the US in Eastern Europe.

On one hand, Russia has repeatedly and clearly voiced its opposition to the creation of this military capability close to its European borders, considering it a useless provocation or even a threat to Russian security. On the other hand, since his election Obama has showed more caution than Bush on the issue, but has also repeated that the project is not a threat against Russia rather protection for the US and its European allies against an Iranian nuclear missile. During the summit, Medvedev maintained the traditional Russian position, adding that missile defense should be “linked” to the nuclear agreement, while Obama stated that a review of the missile defense shield would be completed within two months and that the issue would be re-addressed with the Russian government. As Obama’s main advisor on Russian affairs Mike McFaul recently pointed out, the problem is that the US cannot accept a Russian veto on a security agreement with other NATO members. Moreover, the missile shield is clearly interconnected with the Iran dossier; consequently its realization partly depends on the ability of the international community – including Russia – to convince Teheran to suspend its nuclear program.

It is difficult to measure the impact of Obama’s charisma, the respective roles of Medvedev and Putin, and the personal relationship that the two new presidents have begun to establish. Yet it seems that beyond the rhetoric on “resetting US-Russian relations” the leaders of Moscow and Washington have adopted a truly pragmatic approach on security issues. In fact, the reduction of nuclear arsenals is relatively small and leaves  nuclear deterrence intact,  military cooperation on Afghanistan is cautious, and the disagreement on the missile shield remains deep. Security issues are strictly related to geopolitical national interests, long-term military programs and powerful military establishments; therefore they largely transcend the leaders’ personalities. In other words, the long standing “Great Game” in Central Asia, the Russian opposition to the missile shield in Eastern Europe, and arms control agreements, go beyond the differences between old and new presidents, although the changes caused by Obama’s election are important. Two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that the US and Russia would be “marked out by the will of heaven to sway the destiny of half the globe”. Almost two hundred years later, despite the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia still play a crucial role in many aspects of world security, and whoever is in charge in the White House and in the Kremlin has to deal with this legacy.