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Medvedev-Obama Summit: Day One

The first day of the summit between Presidents Obama and Medvedev went as well as could be expected. The two young chief executives touted all the right buzz words at their joint press conference: openness, frankness, even the vaunted "reset" of relations.


That was the easy part.


Most press reports note that Russian and the United States signed a "nuclear pact." That is a bit misleading. What both sides have agreed to is a framework for negotiations for a treaty to replace START when it expires at the end of the year. It sets the parameters for talks--but the devil will be in the details. Disagreements over how linkages between "offensive" and "defensive" systems (and how this relates to missile defense) and the fate of nuclear warheads that would be demobilized (destroyed or merely warehoused) could lead to deadlocks in the talks. And while president Medvedev praised the spirit of compromise that guided both the U.S. and Russian teams of negotiators, the final treaty language still has to pass a Senate that is increasingly skeptical of Russian intentions.


It is useful that both presidents had "frank" discussions about issues that divide Moscow and Washington, including Georgia. Yet solutions may be hard to come by. President Obama, when in the Senate, supported the expansion of NATO to encompass Georgia and wants to see the country's territorial integrity restored. Moscow opposes further growth in the alliance and has recognized the two separatist regions as independent states. Frank discussions only go so far before both sides will have to decide how this issue impacts the rest of the relationship. A civil nuclear (123) agreement between Russia and the United States died last year in the Congress precisely because of the Georgian conflict. Is President Obama prepared to "compartmentalize" Georgia to pursue a closer relationship with Moscow when it comes to nuclear power, or will the United States insist on Russia changing its stance vis-a-vis Tbilisi as a price for cooperation?


The U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission is an interesting announcement--shades of the 1990s-era Gore-Chernomyrdin commission? If properly empowered to impose interagency discipline on different branches of the U.S. and Russian governments, it might be able to break the logjams that emerged in both Washington and Moscow at the second and third tiers of the bureaucracies that stymied many of the proposals that Presidents Bush and Putin had agreed to. It will also be critical to see whether Secretary of State Clinton, as the head of the U.S. side, will employ any of her considerable reserves of political capital among Democrats on the Hill to push through the inevitable compromises that will result from Russo-American horsetrading on critical issues.


President Obama may return with just enough from Moscow to claim a foreign policy success--but whether anything substantial can be constructed on the foundation being laid (as of day one) at this summit remains to be seen.


[These views are my private opinions, and do not reflect or represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the U.S. government]


Most press reports note that Russian and the United States signed a "nuclear pact." That is a bit misleading. What both sides have agreed to is a framework for negotiations for a treaty to replace START when it expires at the end of the year. It sets the parameters for talks--but the devil will be in the details. Disagreements over how linkages between "offensive" and "defensive" systems (and how this relates to missile defense) and the fate of nuclear warheads that would be demobilized (destroyed or merely warehoused) could lead to deadlocks in the talks. And while president Medvedev praised the spirit of compromise that guided both the U.S. and Russian teams of negotiators, the final treaty language still has to pass a Senate that is increasingly skeptical of Russian intentions.


It is useful that both presidents had "frank" discussions about issues that divide Moscow and Washington, including Georgia. Yet solutions may be hard to come by. President Obama, when in the Senate, supported the expansion of NATO to encompass Georgia and wants to see the country's territorial integrity restored. Moscow opposes further growth in the alliance and has recognized the two separatist regions as independent states. Frank discussions only go so far before both sides will have to decide how this issue impacts the rest of the relationship. A civil nuclear (123) agreement between Russia and the United States died last year in the Congress precisely because of the Georgian conflict. Is President Obama prepared to "compartmentalize" Georgia to pursue a closer relationship with Moscow when it comes to nuclear power, or will the United States insist on Russia changing its stance vis-a-vis Tbilisi as a price for cooperation?


The U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission is an interesting announcement--shades of the 1990s-era Gore-Chernomyrdin commission? If properly empowered to impose interagency discipline on different branches of the U.S. and Russian governments, it might be able to break the logjams that emerged in both Washington and Moscow at the second and third tiers of the bureaucracies that stymied many of the proposals that Presidents Bush and Putin had agreed to. It will also be critical to see whether Secretary of State Clinton, as the head of the U.S. side, will employ any of her considerable reserves of political capital among Democrats on the Hill to push through the inevitable compromises that will result from Russo-American horsetrading on critical issues.


President Obama may return with just enough from Moscow to claim a foreign policy success--but whether anything substantial can be constructed on the foundation being laid (as of day one) at this summit remains to be seen.


[These views are my private opinions, and do not reflect or represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the U.S. government]

 
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