reflections

Geopolitical Diary: The Unresolved Issues Between Washington and Moscow

4 MINS READJul 7, 2009 | 01:54 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, conducted a joint press conference Monday after four hours of talks about a string of issues — including ballistic missile defense, nuclear arms reduction treaties, Georgia, Iran and Afghanistan. They came out of their talks with an air of apparent success in being able to reset U.S.-Russian relations, making a grand show of signing a Joint Understanding on Strategic Arms Reduction — something both parties wanted and which was relatively easy to agree — and an agreement allowing U.S. military equipment to transit Russia en route to Afghanistan. Once the pageantry of the moment subsided, however, it became apparent that the presidents were still far from an agreement or even rapprochement on any of the contentious issues — in particular, ballistic missile defense in Europe and NATO expansion into the former Soviet sphere. Medvedev said at the press conference that Monday was only the first day of the negotiations, which will continue when Obama meets with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. But Obama made it very clear that the contentious issues would not be discussed with Putin then or anytime soon. First, he pushed off any further talks until the fall, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Russia — indicating that Washington isn’t prepared to budge on any of those issues right now. Pressed for details on what the talks with Putin would entail, Obama swept aside Putin’s considerable role in decision-making, saying that Medvedev is the president after all and that in Russia, just as in the United States, the president is the government's supreme leader. For Obama, then, the visit to Moscow boiled down to the four hours spent in talks with Medvedev. Or at least that is the story the U.S. president is sticking to. It was the second time in the past week for Obama to characterize Medvedev as the chief decision-maker in Russia and seek to diminish Putin's role. In an interview with The Associated Press on July 2, Obama said he knew that Putin still had a lot of sway in Russia, but that it was important for him to move forward with Medvedev; that Putin's Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations were outdated and that it was time to move in a different direction – apparently a new direction personified by Medvedev. That interview made U.S.-Russian relations part of Kremlin intrigue by pitting Medvedev against Putin. This could be a conscious strategy by the U.S. administration to insert a wedge between the two leaders and create a rift that most Russian commentators say does not exist, since it is assumed that Medvedev is subservient to Putin. But it also could have been part of Obama's attempts to throw Putin off-balance prior to their meeting on Tuesday. Putin is known to be an intense negotiator, and it could be that Obama was looking to create some wiggle room — by dismissing Putin's sway – in the one-on-one discussions. However, even if Obama is not looking to compromise on any of the contentious points, and even if the U.S. administration is treating Medvedev as the principal Russian negotiator, it does not mean that Putin sees things the same way. Putin wants the U.S. administration to recognize Russia as a regional hegemon, with clearly delineated spheres of influence. He also wants the opportunity to explain exactly what Russia is up to with U.S. allies — like Germany, Poland and Turkey — within that sphere of influence and what strategies the Kremlin might employ in the next several months that could cause U.S. standing with its key allies erode. So even if the Americans are not ready to hear it — nor willing to hear it from the Russian prime minister — Putin is ready to explain his vision for U.S.-Russian relations. Essentially, he can tell Obama just how difficult the Kremlin can make things for Washington. Obama, of course, knows and expects this. Washington has been keeping a close eye on Moscow's activities involving Berlin, Warsaw and Ankara. So while the U.S.-Russian summit appears likely to continue in stalemate over the contentious issues, a key question will be how third-party states perceive the power struggle between Moscow and Washington. They may be forced to recalculate their strategies, depending on whether the U.S. administration withstands (or buckles under) the pressure from Moscow — and particularly from Putin himself.

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