With the New START Treaty hanging in the balance and President Obama gearing up for bilateral talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, The Nixon Center hosted a panel discussion on Thursday about the “reset” in the U.S.-Russian relationship. David J. Kramer, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Andranik Migranyan, director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, Dimitri K. Simes, president of The Nixon Center, and Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense and member of The Nixon Center board of directors, contributed to the in-depth discussion with The Nixon Center’s executive director, Paul Saunders, moderating.
Kramer and Migranyan started the meeting off, setting up the poles of the panel. In his opening statement, Kramer argued that he is wary of “overselling” progress in the U.S.-Russia relationship. This could easily turn into a Washington-needs-us-more-than-we-need-them perception in Moscow, leading to a drop in the leverage the United States has with Russia. Instead, Washington needs to “keep its expectations in check.”
The Obama White House is striking the right chord in Migranyan’s eyes. He held that to Russians, the current U.S. administration is a very welcome change from the Bush years. Obama has given more respect to Russian concerns in the former Soviet Union and has tried to have a real dialogue. Plus, the Obama administration has refrained from “creating messes” and multiplying enemies abroad. Migranyan agreed with Kramer that the relationship can be rocky, but argued that technology sharing and energy security are two areas for potentially close cooperation.
Zakheim tended toward the middle-of-the-road approach. He too thought we shouldn’t oversell progress on issues like Iran and START, but said the situation isn’t as bleak as Kramer would have it and that progress in U.S.-Russian relations is real—though serious challenges lie ahead.
Simes closed out the opening statements with a look at the reasons why the relationship has improved. In many cases, change has come down to events outside of U.S. or Russian control. The financial crisis for one played a large part in toning down Russia’s “petro-arrogance” and making Moscow more likely to cooperate. That the Russian rulers were not complete masters over the post-Soviet space became abundantly clear and led to the beginnings of a reconciliation with the West. But, Simes argued, “the real heavy lifting” is still to come.
One of the stickiest situations seems to be Iran and whether Russia’s UN Security Council vote for the U.S.-driven sanctions resolution constitutes a major step in the relationship. Migranyan argued that the move may have been small, but it marks a very significant symbolic shift. It is a sign that Russia is dedicated to addressing this issue alongside the United States. Zakheim largely agreed, adding that everyone knows Washington was pulling out all of the stops to get the resolution through the Security Council, but nevertheless, the fact that Russia voted for sanctions was significant in and of itself—Moscow did not vote against the resolution like Washington’s allies Turkey or Brazil.
Kramer took the polar opposite tack, arguing that the administration has exaggerated Russia’s movement. The Security Council has been through numerous rounds of sanctions with Iran and this simply isn’t a big deal. Simes agreed, saying that the sanctions step is “not a major improvement.”
What’s more, Simes argued, Russia isn’t moving in a direction that will significantly help Washington when it comes to Iran. There is only one way to make that happen, and that is to return to quid pro quo. We shouldn’t be sentimental about the unsentimental people governing Russia, he said. An example is Russia’s stance on the delivery of S300 air-defense missiles to Iran, a sale that, under differing interpretations, the UN resolution may or may not prevent Moscow from carrying out. That Russia decided not to make the sale is not a sign of a change of heart but rather a change in finances: Moscow was set to receive $800 million from Iran for the missiles but discovered that it could make much more than $800 million from the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement on civil-nuclear cooperation that the Obama administration recently sent to Congress.
Discussion of the S300 situation folded into talk about the New START Treaty, missile defense and secret assurances. Washington says that its plans for missile defenses in Eastern Europe have been crafted with Iran and North Korea in mind. Russia has objected to the system because it represents a threat to its nuclear deterrent. And Dov Zakheim pointed out that the preamble to the New START Treaty says there is a link between missile defense and offensive weapons. So, if we signed onto New START, we would potentially have to limit our missile-defense plans as well or risk Russian withdrawal. Thus far, the Obama administration has claimed that New START does not limit its missile-defense plans.
All of this, according to Zakheim, could get the Obama administration into hot water with actors on the Hill, particularly Republicans. So it’s up to the administration to craft its public-relations message vis-à-vis New START very carefully if it wants the treaty to pass. It will have to say unequivocally that no secret deals to limit missile defenses have been made with Russia on the side if it wants the treaty to have a chance here at home.
It’s all about perception. While sending the right message to Congress about New START, the Obama administration has to convince Russia that it does not threaten Moscow’s strategic deterrent, something Washington has already taken pains to point out.
In the audience, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow said that Washington would push ahead with its missile-defense plans, made no commitments that would limit anything the administration intends to do, and had communicated to Moscow that the administration’s plans would not threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent. But David Kramer thinks Washington should come clean about what is really going on—the New START treaty has already put restrictions on missile defense, including giving up the opportunity to use existing missile silos for anti-missile interceptors. Simes argued that the administration’s assurances to Moscow that the United States would do nothing to undermine its strategic deterrent could be interpreted as a de facto commitment not to deploy any systems that Russia warned (in a unilateral statement) would invalidate the agreement. “This is a game of chicken,” Kramer said, wondering who is going to back down first.
Vershbow added that securing Europe and the post-Soviet space would be “the steepest climb ahead of us,” highlighting an issue that elicited some strong feelings from all of the panelists. Andranik Migranyan and Dimitri Simes both shared Vershbow’s expectation that the post-Soviet sphere would be an important concern for Russia moving forward. Migranyan argued that the Obama administration has largely stayed out of the area, both because it is overwhelmed with other problems and because the states that make up the area think Washington is an unreliable partner. Kramer retorted in his closing remarks that Migranyan’s words were “scary” because they imply that Washington is in essence ignoring all of these countries, which in turn sends the wrong signals to Moscow. Ambassador Vershbow echoed Kramer’s concerns, saying that Washington was not yielding to Russia in the post-Soviet space. Also speaking from the audience, Latvian State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Andris Teikmanis noted that countries around Russia’s periphery are not to be forgotten.
Next week, President Medvedev won’t just be stopping in Washington. His visit to the States will also take him on a tour of Silicon Valley. Russia has begun to focus on economic modernization as the path to future prosperity and has discovered that it can learn a lot from what other states have in the works. From the tech world to accessing transit routes to Afghanistan all the way through dealing with a nuclear-happy Iran, what our panelists made clear is that Washington and Moscow have a lot of common ground. The question is whether they can find a way to work together.
Rebecca N. White is The National Interest's assistant managing editor.