Updated at 8:12 a.m. on November 18.
When Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev meet at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, this weekend, it may prove the high-water mark for the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations that both leaders staked considerable prestige on.
Recent events seem likely to sorely test that goodwill, including a stalled New START arms-reduction treaty, the bruising extradition battle over suspected Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, and gains in U.S. midterm elections by Republicans critical of Russia’s continued occupation of Georgia and poor human rights record.
The very fact that Obama and Medvedev will meet at the first summit-level gathering of the NATO-Russia Council since the 2008 conflict in Georgia, which sent relations plummeting to a dangerous post-Cold War nadir, certainly underscores how far they have come.
“When we took office the relationship between the United States and Russia, and between several European countries and Russia, had drifted to a post-Cold War low point,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Tuesday. “It’s a signal of how we’ve turned that around that we can have the kind of dialogue we will have with Russia at Lisbon. Our national security has been significantly advanced on issues such as Afghanistan, sanctions on Iran, and European security because of the Russia reset.”
Indeed, U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan today are resupplied through Russian territory, and Iran chafes against surprisingly tough sanctions that both nations supported in the U.N. Security Council earlier this year. Washington now backs Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Moscow has scuttled a sale to Tehran of its advanced S-300 air defense system, a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In Lisbon, Obama and other NATO leaders will seriously propose cooperating with Russia on a missile defense system in Europe, a potential game-changer in relations between the Western alliance and Russia that would have seemed preposterous just a few years ago.
But the foundation stone for the reset in U.S.-Russian relations was a New START treaty that seems increasingly in trouble in the U.S. Senate. On Tuesday, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the Republicans’ “go-to guy” on nuclear weapons issues, stunned the Obama administration and dealt a major setback to the ratification process by declaring there was no time in the lame-duck session to adequately consider the treaty.
Maybe Kyl is simply playing for time and increased bargaining leverage in the next Congress, but administration officials haven’t forgotten that a similar dynamic of a stalled treaty and hyper-partisanship eventually sounded the death knell for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.
In moving towards a mutual “reset” in relations, Obama and Medvedev also exposed their respective right flanks domestically. “If New START is eventually rejected by the Senate, I think it will have severe negative consequences for both leaders,” said Dimitri Simes, a Russian expert and president of the Nixon Center in Washington.
“Such a defeat will obviously deal a blow to Obama’s credibility not only in the eyes of Russia, but also in the eyes of much of the world,” Simes said. “It will likewise prove unpleasant for Medvedev, who to a large degree has linked his political fortunes and strategic legitimacy on his special relationship with Obama and the reset in U.S.–Russian relations.”
With Russian elections approaching in 2012, strongman and former President Vladimir Putin could use a high-profile defeat of New START to whip up anti-Western nationalism and belittle Medvedev’s pro-Western outreach.
“To the degree there is a gap between the approaches of Medvedev and Putin, the failure to ratify New START will likely be seen domestically as a blow to Medvedev and a boon to Putin and the hardliners,” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative.
“In general, if they feel stiffed on New START,” Pifer said, “the Russians are likely to adopt a much less helpful attitude on a host of issues that matter a lot to the United States.”
This article appears in the November 18, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.