The U.S.-Russian Summit Turns Routine
The Moscow summit between U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ended. As is almost always the case, the atmospherics were good, with the proper things said on all sides and statements and gestures of deep sincerity made. And as with all summits, those atmospherics are like the air: insubstantial and ultimately invisible. While there were indications of substantial movement, you would have needed a microscope to see them.
An agreement was reached on what an agreement on nuclear arms reduction might look like, but we do not regard this as a strategic matter. The number of strategic warheads and delivery vehicles is a Cold War issue that concerned the security of each side’s nuclear deterrent. We do not mean to argue that removing a thousand or so nuclear weapons is unimportant, but instead that no one is deterring anyone these days, and the risk of accidental launch is as large or as small whether there are 500 or 5,000 launchers or warheads. Either way, nuclear arms’ strategic significance remains unchanged. The summit perhaps has created a process that could lead to some degree of confidence. It is not lack of confidence dividing the two countries, however, but rather divisions on fundamental geopolitical issues that don’t intersect with the missile question.
The Fundamental Issues
There are dozens of contentious issues between the United States and Russia, but in our mind three issues are fundamental.
First, there is the question of whether Poland will become a base from which the United States can contain Russian power, or from the Russian point of view, threaten the former Soviet Union. The ballistic missile defense (BMD) system that the United States has slated for Poland does not directly affect that issue, though it symbolizes it. It represents the U.S. use of Polish territory for strategic purposes, and it is something the Russians oppose not so much for the system’s direct or specific threat — which is minimal — but for what it symbolizes about the Americans’ status in Poland. The Russians hoped to get Obama to follow the policy at the summit that he alluded to during his campaign for the U.S. presidency: namely, removing the BMD program from Poland to reduce tensions with Russia.
Second, there is the question of Iran. This is a strategic matter for the United States, perhaps even more pressing since the recent Iranian election. The United States badly needs to isolate Iran effectively, something impossible without Russian cooperation. Moscow has refused to join Washington on this issue, in part because it is so important to the United States. Given its importance to the Americans, the Russians see Iran as a lever with which they can try to control U.S. actions elsewhere. The Americans do not want to see Russian support, and particularly arms sales, to Iran. Given that, the Russians don’t want to close off the possibility of supporting Iran. The United States wanted to see some Russian commitments on Iran at the summit.
And third, there is the question of U.S. relations with former Soviet countries other than Russia, and the expressed U.S. desire to see NATO expand to include Ukraine and Georgia. The Russians insist that any such expansion threatens Russian national security and understandings with previous U.S. administrations. The United States insists that no such understandings exist, that NATO expansion doesn’t threaten Russia, and that the expansion will continue. The Russians were hoping the Americans would back off on this issue at the summit.