The Real Breakthrough at the Russia Summit

Arms control and Afghanistan were key issues at the summit, write Samuel Charap and Andrew Grotto, but just as important is that the two countries are managing their disagreements.

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev wave as they leave Manezh Exhibition Hall during the Parallel Business Summit in Moscow. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev wave as they leave Manezh Exhibition Hall during the Parallel Business Summit in Moscow. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The U.S.-Russia summit in Moscow was a success for the Obama administration. After all, it’s not every day that two countries agree in principle to cut operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. The summit demonstrated that the United States and Russia can work together on issues of mutual interest. And it speaks volumes about the Obama administration’s diplomacy that it was able to prevent disagreements with the Kremlin from derailing its agenda, particularly the negotiations for an ambitious new arms control agreement.

It is all too easy to forget the nature of the U.S.-Russia relationship that the Obama administration inherited. The two countries were not on speaking terms at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. Diplomacy was conducted by megaphone, with each side bashing the other in public forums. In the months following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, the Bush administration supported the suspension of the NATO-Russia Council, cut bilateral military contacts, and pulled an important agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation from Congress. There was talk of a new Cold War in both Moscow and Washington.

After the summit this week, we can put that talk to rest. The two presidents announced nine agreements—all of which will have a practical, concrete impact:

  • A Joint Understanding to guide negotiations for a replacement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December.
  • A joint agreement on strengthening export controls over sensitive nuclear technologies and ensuring the physical security of nuclear materials against theft by terrorists.
  • An agreement by Russia to allow the United States to transport troops and lethal supplies to Afghanistan through its airspace.
  • A joint agreement to cooperate on counternarcotics, infrastructure, and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
  • A declaration establishing a U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission to strengthen bilateral consultation and diplomacy
  • A joint statement on missile defense directing experts from both countries to jointly analyze and make recommendations on ballistic missile challenges.
  • A new strategic framework for military-military cooperation.
  • A memorandum on bilateral cooperation in public health and medical science.
  • A Joint Understanding on a U.S.-Russia Commission on POW/MIAs.

So far, the first two elements—arms control and nonproliferation—have dominated the headlines, and for good reason. They will tangibly improve the security of all countries that have an interest in denying terrorists and rogue states access to nuclear weapons, materials, and technologies. The Joint Understanding outlines a framework for subsequent negotiations over an arms control treaty to replace the START agreement, which expires on December 5, 2009. START is significant because it specifies the rules and procedures for mutual monitoring and verification of existing arms control commitments such as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT.

SORT commits the parties to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,700-2,200 weapons by December 31, 2012. Both countries have also agreed to reduce operationally deployed strategic warheads by up to one-third of the present 2,200 maximum established by SORT, for a permissible range of 1,500-1,675. And they agreed to cut launch vehicles such as ballistic missiles by up to two-thirds of the 1600 allowed under the START agreement, for a target range of 500-1,100.

Many commentators expected disputes over U.S. plans to install components of a ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe to derail a substantive framework agreement on START. Not only were they proven wrong, as the Joint Understanding demonstrates, but the presidents also signed a separate—and unexpected—statement at the summit on missile defense issues. The statement calls for a joint assessment on missile defense needs and capabilities and for the creation of a data exchange center that will form the basis for an eventual multilateral missile-launch notification regime. The sites in Eastern Europe were discussed, but the Russians did not allow their objections to determine the summit’s tone.

The agreements on Afghanistan received second billing in the press, but they are highly significant. The transport accord—until its signing, the United States could only transport non-lethal supplies across Russia—will enable the administration to diversity its transport routes, avoiding the perilous Khyber Pass in Pakistan, and to move troops and supplies to Afghanistan more quickly. The deal, which allows for 4,500 flights a year, will save up to $133 million annually in transit costs.

The joint statement delineates a number of areas where the two countries will work together in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, including training counternarcotics personnel and restoring that country’s decimated infrastructure, much of which is in fact of Soviet origin. Russia’s willingness to sign on was unprecedented, since Afghanistan is something of a third rail in Russian politics. The Russian public and the Russian elite associate the country with the deaths of thousands of Red Army soldiers and a war that brought the Soviet Union closer to its collapse. It is a big step for the Russians to effectively return to Afghanistan. And it is a step that could boost U.S. and NATO efforts there given Russia’s closeness to Afghanistan, its position as a route for narcotraffic to Europe, and the large remaining Soviet-era infrastructure objects in the country. And it could also save American lives by reducing the amount of cargo sent through the Khyber Pass.

President Obama also visited a civil society forum during his trip, met with opposition leaders, and addressed a gathering of both country’s business leaders. He managed to get the Russians to lift restrictions on U.S. livestock exports, which is a big win as Russia is the top export market for U.S. poultry.

Yet despite all this, the headline of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal story on the summit reads “U.S.-Russian Summit Ends With Mixed Results.” Why?

Some in the media seem to have expected “breakthroughs” on what are often considered the most difficult issues in the bilateral relationship: the missile shield sites in Eastern Europe and NATO enlargement—or more specifically, NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. The assumption appears to be that the two parties, after mere months of negotiation, would magically overcome years of mistrust and discord to achieve some sort of “grand bargain” whereby the United States gives up one or the other initiative in return for Russian support on something “more important,” such as Iran.

These expectations were unrealistic, and this assumption was flawed. The United States does not make major foreign policy shifts simply to please a negotiating partner. And the Obama administration has made clear that it did not go to Moscow to make a trade. Policy decisions on missile defense are made in Washington; the review on ballistic missile defense is ongoing, and NATO enlargement is first and foremost a function of the countries in question being ready for membership.

Further, there are certain areas where we are going to have to agree to disagree, such as Russia’s continuing military presence in Georgia. And the two sides did openly acknowledge their differences, but they did so without indulging in the hysteria and belligerent speechifying characteristic of the final months of the Bush presidency.

That was the real breakthrough at the summit. The disagreements that existed in late 2008 are to a significant extent the same as they are today. But now they are being managed, and that allows the United States and Russia to work together on issues of mutual interest.

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