President Medvedev meets with President Obama on June 24, following a visit to Silicon Valley. In a video Q&A, Matthew Rojansky explains that while the focus of the meeting is economic and technological cooperation, major security issues—including Iran sanctions, the U.S.–Russian civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, and arms control—will also be on the agenda.
Rojansky credits the success of the reset in relations with helping to gain Russia’s support for sanctions against Iran, but global nuclear security cooperation could be threatened if the United States does not ratify New START. “If the Russians put this much effort into a bilateral security agreement with the United States and see it fail, the two powers would be off to a rocky start for future cooperation.”
- What is on the agenda for President Medvedev’s trip to Silicon Valley and Washington?
- Are relations between the two sides improving?
- How is the ratification of New START proceeding in both countries?
- Why did Russia agree to a new round of sanctions on Iran?
- Are Russia and the United States working together to address the violence in Kyrgyzstan?
- What are the obstacles ahead in U.S.–Russia relations?
This visit by President Medvedev is actually his first official visit to the United States. He’s been here before, but it hasn’t been an official bilateral head of state visit. They had an official meeting in Moscow when President Obama went there last summer. So this is an important meeting in its own right, setting aside the modernization, technological, economic agenda that President Medvedev has highlighted for the trip. That will probably be at the top of the general atmospherics of the meeting.
There will be a lot of talk and rhetoric about how the United States and Russia have made progress on security issues. But now it’s time to make progress on economic and trade relations. Russia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) accession will be on the table. That’s something that many people thought would be done years ago—certainly the Russians thought that. There was talk on the American side that by the end of 2009 it would be completed, but it didn’t happen. So it will be back on the front burner in terms of priority for both sides.
The civilian nuclear cooperation agreement is before the U.S. Congress right now; it will go into force unless Congress passes a law to object by the August recess. So that’s also an economic and a security issue.
There will be major security issues though still on the agenda for the two leaders, because remember, this is a summit, and at a summit, the presidents will talk about the big issues of the countries. On Kyrgyzstan—where there has been explosive violence in recent weeks—it’s not clear what the United States and Russia will do together but they will certainly talk about potential responses if things get worse, when and if things get better, how they might deal with the provisional government, and the results of the Kyrgyz referendum.
Obviously Afghanistan has been a priority for the United States and Russia for some time now. Russia now has a sense that the United States has come around to seeing things its way in terms of emphasizing counter-narcotics and prioritizing counterinsurgency. The United States, for a year now, has been enjoying the transit rights agreement that Russia signed with the United States as a result of the last summit meeting in Moscow. And so that reflects the Russian commitment to not seeing Afghanistan fall apart in its neighborhood.
And then of course you have nuclear security, where there’s been a fair amount of progress that is not entirely summed up by the START agreement—although that is a major part of it. There was major Russian involvement in the Nuclear Security Summit, and somewhat surprisingly, Russia and the United States have been leading the charge on Iran. So you have a number of security issues all of which will be on the table along with the economic issues.
Evaluating whether the relationship has improved depends on how you define success in the relationship.
Michael McFaul, who is the president’s top adviser on Russia, has said that the reset was not just about friendly atmospherics between the United States and Russia, but about concrete outcomes. Certainly in terms of atmospherics, the relationship is more positive today than it was a year ago, than it was two years ago, and so it has been successful in that respect.
But if you look at concrete outcomes, the record is a little bit more mixed. We should bear in mind that the reset has only been going on for a short amount of time—a year or a year and a half depending on how you count—so we have to give it some more time. But there are a lot of concrete results on areas where the United States and Russia clearly had urgent shared interests dealing with national security. They signed the START deal—hopefully its moving towards ratification—they’ve cooperated on Afghanistan, and they’ve continued to cooperate on counterterrorism, on counter-narcotics, and on all of the areas where for twenty years, the United States and Russia have had a pretty solid record of increasing cooperation because frankly, it is simply in our interests.
The areas where we have had less cooperation, or less successful cooperation—civil society, democracy, nongovernmental organizations, economic engagement—are the issues that have been subject to much of the same forces for a long time. And that is to say that the United States and Russia are two very different societies, which are divided by things like: the nature of our government and rule of law, as well as the international economic situation where Russia is a major seller and exporter of natural resources, and the United States is a major consumer. And it is hard to change those facts.
New START ratification has been a matter of moving in lock step together on the U.S. and Russian sides. The Russians have said that as soon as the treaty is submitted to the United States Senate, it will be submitted to the Russian Duma and as soon as it is ratified in the Senate it will be ratified by the Duma.
Of course at the same time the Russians have said that they’re going to have a real fight to ratify this in the Duma. That’s a tough read. It’s true, there is a real fight in Russian society. In some sense, it is a fight that goes all the way up to the Kremlin to Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev. And they may be of two minds on security cooperation with the United States. On the one hand, it certainly serves Russia’s interests; it gives them a lot of things that they wanted. But on the other hand, it limits them. And that is what treaties do.
This is also the situation for the United States, although the U.S. Senate is in a slightly different position because the Senate debate exists, in part, in isolation from the administration. This is a debate that is being led by proponents of the treaty within the Senate. Senators Lugar and Kerry are both strong supporters on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but then there are strong opponents. For years, Senator Kyl from Arizona has been a strong opponent to almost all nuclear security treaties and certainly this one. There are a number of senators who have come out strongly against the treaty, have either said they will vote against it or they are leaning towards voting against it, or have expressed reservations about it. But you also have a big block of senators who are voting for it.
The challenge for the U.S. administration is going to be whether it should push for a vote, simply because it thinks it has 67 or 68 votes—the minimum to get the super-majority needed to get a treaty through—and then call on the Russians to do the same thing. Or should the administration wait until it has an overwhelming majority—as we have seen in past arms control treaties—somewhere in the high 70s, 80s, or even 90s, which would follow past precedents. This would take a lot longer, and the Russian side may get somewhat disillusioned if they have to wait around that long.
Russia’s response to U.S. resolve to pass sanctions against Iran and then Iran’s last-ditch machinations to avoid those sanctions has been driven by a couple of factors.
First, Russia is frustrated with Iran’s behavior at this point. Russia has generally been opposed to punishing Iran and it doesn’t believe that sanctions will work, but at the same time, it’s acknowledged that at a certain point, Iran’s own behavior may make sanctions inevitable. We’ve reached that point and that’s why Russia supported the sanctions. The big turning point was probably when the Iranians lied to the world—but in particular, they lied to the Russians, who have generally been Iran’s partners on their peaceful nuclear program. When it came to the Qom facility, the Iranians had simply concealed it from the entire world and so the Russians didn’t feel they had any special level of trust and wondered why they were protecting Tehran. This was the Russian attitude.
At the same time, there are economic factors. There is also the reset in the relationship between the United and Russia. With the reset, I wouldn’t call it a quid pro quo, but I would say the generally positive spirit and momentum of the reset would have been interrupted had the Russians put their foot down and said absolutely no to sanctions and vetoed them in the UN Security Council. In weighing the benefits in the reset, when you look at the Russian memo that was leaked a couple of weeks ago, indicating that the Russian government actually does value the reset and benefits from it, they were not willing to see that go away in exchange for protecting their petty recalcitrant friend and partner in Iran.
That said, Russia still sees Iran as much more of a partner. Iran is a country they can deal with and one that they need to deal with because it is right there on their door step in Central Asia. They're a sword of Damocles hanging over Russia as Iran has the ability in some sense and could start supporting Islamic extremism within Russia and in the countries neighboring Russia much more than it does. So, Russia feels a little bit threatened by Iran in that respect and doesn’t want to overly provoke it.
The Russians suspended the sale of S300 missiles—these are the air defense missiles that would effectively prevent an Israeli attack on Iran, or perhaps provoke one because the Israelis may have to attack before the missiles were deployed if the sale went through—and claimed that they were complying with the UN Security Council resolution. The fact that Russia did that is an indication that Moscow sees that it has more to gain through playing with the international community and with the United States on this than the opposite.
The case in point on this is the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia. Russia has a major civilian nuclear power industry—a uranium enrichment industry, the plutonium industry, reprocessing industry—and they can make more money if that agreement goes through then they would on simply selling this one weapon system to Iran.
The United States and Russia have no immediate plans to intervene in Kyrgyzstan. That was the operative question that arose on Monday when Roza Otunbayeva, the interim leader of Kyrgyzstan, directly reached out to the Kremlin and asked for troops. Some have suggested that she also reached out to the United States (although I have not heard that confirmed), but in any case it was clear that Otunbayeva’s government wanted intervention.
The fact that neither side intervened at that point—in fact they both handled it in a relatively arms length fashion with slow, deliberate, careful responses and offered humanitarian aid, but that’s about it—indicates more or less that Russia and the United States are on the same page. Whether it is the right page to be on at this moment, it’s hard to say. If the violence calms down and it doesn't spiral out of control and spill over the borders into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, then it may prove to be the right thing to do. If the opposite happens, there may be regret that they didn’t intervene earlier.
So, the United States and Russia are generally on the same page there, but they’re being careful not to risk too much by sending any kind of forces in on the ground, whether there is a multilateral mandate or not.
Well, certainly there is a set of concrete challenges that both countries face in the immediate future. Whether START is ratified or not and by how many votes will send a significant message about the future of U.S.–Russian arms control and perhaps even security cooperation, at least in the near or mid-term. If the Russians put this much effort into a bilateral security agreement with the United States and see it fail, the two powers would be off to a rocky start for future cooperation. And with the United States and Russia having 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, that’s more or less where global nuclear security starts—this is a major challenge.
The civilian nuclear cooperation agreement is probably going to go through because it requires proactive action by the U.S. Congress to stop it. Congress actually needs to pass a law and that doesn’t appear likely to happen, although there is a resolution floating around. While that will be a positive step, it is still a challenge.
WTO accession is another major challenge. The United States and Russia are going to have to come to terms on things like intellectual property rights protection. Russia hasn’t budged from the position it’s held for a decade or so on this issue and basically maintains that intellectual property protection doesn’t apply in Russia. It’s going to have to come to the realization that this position is not consistent with creating a knowledge-based economy in Russia. If Russians are going to become innovators, then their intellectual property needs protection just like American and Western ideas do.
The largest obstacle, potentially, is what I would call a bump in the road for the reset. Russia may incorrectly interpret U.S. willingness to engage, to make Russia a priority, and to dual track some of our disagreements (for example, Georgia, NATO expansion, missile defense, democracy and human rights, etc.) so that we can move forward in the areas where we see eye to eye and enjoy common interests without getting hungup on the disagreements.
If Russia perceives this as having some unspoken quid pro quo, then there is a significant possibility that when something flares up in the future, and the United States responds harshly on Russia—as Congress and the White House would be fully expected to do—then the Russians may view this as throwing the whole deal down the well. Then the deal is off and the world may start to see Russian retribution in response because certainly the Russians do not view these as dual track issues, in which we isolate our disagreements and work only on our areas of cooperation. This is probably the biggest challenge down the road for the reset.