An American Treaty

The new arms deal with Russia is a historic achievement—for Obama. The Kremlin couldn’t care less and is focused on a wholly different set of foreign-policy issues.

It was an expertly choreographed event. Under the gold chandeliers of the Spanish Hall in the Czech Presidential Palace, President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev signed the renegotiated START treaty. The location for the festivities could not have been more appropriate: Prague was one of the most poignant symbols of the Cold War, and it was here where, almost exactly a year ago, Obama promised to move towards "a world without nuclear weapons." Everything, including the timing-there's a major nuclear summit next week-was designed to show amity, reconciliation, and an historic achievement.

And it is-for Obama.

The renegotiated agreement, START-3, came fast on the heels of Obama's dearly won health-care victory at home. And, after a year of flagging hopes for the president's supporters, this domestic-foreign one-two suddenly made Obama seem less like an idealist than an idealist who can follow through on promises that many once thought quixotic. And let's be clear: it is a major victory for Obama. After years of George W. Bush lecturing a newly hubristic Russia into a stance so belligerent as to revive talk of a new Cold War, Obama has managed to peg Russia to a treaty that doesn't really reduce the American arsenal-it just puts a big chunk of the disassembled stuff in storage, allowing Washington to rearm within twelve months if necessary-and that doesn't budge on Russian demands to link disarmament to axing American missile defense in Eastern Europe. On top of that, Obama convincingly remakes the case for America's moral leadership in the world while putting a dent into his Nobel Peace Prize homework.

No wonder the Russians are so lukewarm.

Neither Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin have made any public statements about the treaty, and some minor Russian officials summoned a tepid, appropriately positive tone. Press coverage here has been minimal and straight-forward at best: We signed a treaty with America, here's what it's about. Next. If you're looking to read about why the signing is of historical significance, you'll have to turn to the American media for that.

Partially, this is because Russia didn't get what it wanted out of the treaty. The United States will continue with its plans for missile defense in Romania. This is salt in the barely healed wound left by Bush's plans for a missile shield in-guess where-the Czech Republic, and the Russians wanted a full scrapping of the system if they were to sign on to the revamped START treaty. They didn't get that, but signed the treaty anyway, a blow for a country that is almost hysterically obsessed with projecting an image of raw strength and bluster. To make matters worse, during Obama's dinner with Eastern and Central European heads of state, he plans to admonish them to drop old Russian stereotypes. A soothing lozenge for the Russians?

Not only that, but it's odd for a country that is still so obsessed with its former glory during the height of the Cold War to edge away from one of the things that put it on the map as a world power. Anti-Americanism, though not as bad as it was during the Bush presidency, is still a hallmark of mainstream Russian thinking. (A Moscow cabbie recently told a friend that all that was left to do in Russia was to "definitively crush America.") The residues of the Cold War are still visible on the policy level, too. Just two months ago, Medvedev signed a military doctrine that named NATO as one of the top threats to Russian security.

Pragmatically, getting this stuff out of its system might be a good thing for the Kremlin, but Russia doesn't think like that. Russia marinates in old slights and finds that casting itself as the counterweight-or thorn-in-side-to America's geopolitics is an easy way to stay relevant: become the nuisance so people will have to pay attention, and try to entice and appease you. "Russia wanted to drag the negotiations out forever," says Aleksandr Golts, who writes about all-things military for the liberal Web site ej.ru. This is perhaps why the signing is a bit of a let-down for Russia: this is one less thing the West has to appeal to Russia for. What's left, now? Iran?

And here's the other thing: Russia has much bigger fish to fry today. It's easy to forget this in an American news tunnel, but Russia already has plenty on its plate. In the wake of last week's twin suicide bombings in Moscow, it is dealing with what seems to be a resurgent threat of domestic terrorism and a re-heating of an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, as well as a bloody, chaotic revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Ukraine has a new friendly president just as Gazprom seems to be able to exert less influence; there's the issue of establishing a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. It's also working on smoothing relations with Poland. And that's just on the foreign-policy front. "We have different issues to deal with," says Anton Khloponov, an expert with Moscow's Center for Energy and Security Studies. "For Obama, this was a major focus of his foreign policy. For us it's not such a big deal."

 

Julia Ioffe is a writer living in Moscow.