The latest intrigue in Russian-U.S. relations was U.S. President Barack Obama’s delayed official greetings to president-elect Vladimir Putin on his win. The U.S. Department of State made a low-key announcement about the presidential election in Russia, which did not even refer to the winner by name. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Russian government to heed criticisms voiced by the OSCE. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney reproached Obama for his failure to criticize the “flagrant manipulation.” Finally, long-time Russia critic Sen. John McCain again predicted the liberation of the Russian people from tyranny in the manner of the Arab Spring. An official spokesman for the White House said that there was nothing personal in Obama’s delay – the head of state was simply very busy.
Finally, on March 9, Obama called Putin and a detailed conversation followed. Moscow had stated earlier that the positive trends in bilateral relations of the last few years will be continued. There was no scandal and Putin’s victory was accepted, albeit without much enthusiasm. The sides have differences but will try not to highlight them for the time being. Moreover, there was an indirect signal this week that they will even try to minimize the fallout from the negative tone of the election campaigns in both countries.
The newspaper Kommersant quotes sources as saying that the relocation of the G8 summit in May from Chicago to Camp David is linked with Obama’s reluctance to create a negative atmosphere in relations with Russia. The G8 forum will be followed by a NATO summit in Chicago and Putin promised to attend it only in the event that progress is made on missile defense. Progress is not on the horizon, and Putin’s demonstrative departure from Chicago would only create unnecessary chatter about the collapse of the reset. This is not to say that his presence at the NATO summit would improve the atmosphere. The president-elect would likely only perpetuate the cycle of mutual accusations that has become routine since 2000. The Americans are not confirming anything on the record. Off the record, they describe Putin as one of the reasons, but not the main one. However, both Moscow and Washington clearly understand the fragility of the moment and the need for tact.
Putin’s guarded and mistrustful attitude to the United States is common knowledge, and he makes no attempt to conceal it. The reasons for it lie not in his record during the Cold War, as many often claim, but in his experience in dealing with the George W. Bush administration during its first and, particularly, second term.
Whether fair or not, Putin has come to the conclusion that a gentlemen’s agreement is not possible with the United States. He thinks Bush responded with base ingratitude to Moscow’s positive gestures more than once – from its support during 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror, to its voluntary closing of military facilities in Vietnam and Cuba. Putin believes that these gestures were met with aggressive efforts of the United States to bolster its presence in the post-Soviet space, expand NATO, and deploy missile defense systems on Polish and Czech territory, to name a few. As a result, Putin has come to the conclusion that agreements with the United States are possible but only following tough and uncompromising bargaining, as was the case with the New START treaty and Russia’s accession to the WTO.
However, the bigger problem is that the new governments (and meaningful talks are not possible earlier than next spring when the presidential election is over in the United States as well) do not have a clear-cut positive agenda. They have carried through the reset. Now they are facing the same old issues: Afghanistan and Iran. The former is simpler: the organized withdrawal of U.S. troops and maintaining relative stability there is in the interests of all parties. This should not create any special problems. The situation around Iran strongly depends on numerous external factors. Moscow and Washington will discuss both issues, but they can hardly form the basis of a new bilateral agenda.
The first obstacle the new leaders will face will be the same old story of missile defense. Putin dealt with this issue during his previous presidency, when he made proposals to Bush. He does not intend to give up now. A compromise is hardly possible because missile defense is a matter of principle for both sides. Russia insists that the United States plan is a threat to its security whereas the United States is confident of its right to move forward regardless of any country’s response. The potential for conflict is obviously strong. Moscow acknowledges that as long as the principle of strategic stability – Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) – remains, missile defense talks will be stuck in an impasse. But there does not appear to be any other principle that would suit both sides.
There is nothing else to discuss. There will be no opportunity to maintain dialogue by negotiating nuclear arms cuts again. First, Russia believes further reductions would diminish its defensive capabilities. After all, Moscow has to consider other factors as well, such as China, which is gradually building up its military strength. Second, even if Russia and the United States decide to resume talks on this issue, this is not a full-scale agenda of the 21st century. For the time being the sides are surviving on table scraps from the 20th century, but they are almost all gone.