Obama in Moscow - perhaps a B-minus?

About the author
E. Wayne Merry is a Senior Associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

President Obama has completed his first in-depth engagement with the Russian leadership during his Moscow visit. From an outsider's perspective, he gets a B-plus for substance but no better than a C on form. On balance, then, a B-minus. The new American administration's relations with Russia are a process, adjusting the policies of the previous Bush administration to its own goals. The main areas of change are three:  

  • treaty-based strategic nuclear arms control
  • Afghanistan
  • a structure for other bilateralcooperation.

This process began with the meeting of the two presidents in London. The Moscow summit represents progress on their first meeting in each area, but each is a shell waiting for real achievement. In each case, the serious work is still ahead.

On strategic nuclear arms control, both sides want to preserve the treaty-based system of the Reagan-Gorbachev period, but without even the facade of real parity between the two powers which then existed. The Russian strategic nuclear force is aging rapidly, will continue to shrink regardless of arms control, but represents for Russia one of its few remaining grounds to claim great power status (the others being geography and oil/gas exports). 

The U.S. nuclear force is much more modern, but plays far less importance in either the American military posture or its international role in general.  Both sides agree to smaller arsenals, but for different reasons. Moscow is less concerned with the traditional measures of nuclear power (missiles, warheads, throw weight) than with American dominance in non-nuclear strategic weaponry and its lead in ballistic missile defence. The Russians see a prospective environment in which they would cease to have a credible deterrent in face of American technological progress. Thus, the asymmetry facing the treaty negotiators on both sides.

Obama and Medvedev agreed again on the need for a replacement treaty (or treaties) for START which expires in December. On the American side, a complication is the on-going Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in the Pentagon because, in principle at least, the U.S. negotiating position should reflect the outcome of the Review. In practice, the two proceed hand in hand, but the negotiations cannot get out in front. This is more a matter of White House relations with the Senate than with the Kremlin, as Senators of both parties can be both prickly and independent of the President in matters of treaty ratification.

Other complications are the Bush Administration's efforts to deploy ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, the nature of future non-strategic systems on the U.S. side, counting stored versus deployed warheads, and other issues beloved of the arms control experts. The Obama team's efforts to square the circle on the ABM issue through a collaborative programme with Russia will fail. Washington tried this before in more favourable circumstances, and got nowhere. The simple reality is that the Russian leadership regard any U.S. ABM as directed against their security.  Deploying an ABM close to their borders is additionally an affront they feel they must reject. Interestingly, the Russian military have given some indications that a sea-based system would not be an insuperable negotiating problem, but Moscow is holding firm on systems in Poland.

The Obama team has said all along it will evaluate those planned deployments in terms of technical capacity and cost effectiveness. The latter quality is a loophole through which any system can be judged worthy or worthless.

Given the complex issues involved and the limited time remaining, a reasonable expectation would be for an interim treaty before the end of this year to commit both sides to substantial reductions in their nuclear ceilings (in fact, both are already well below their existing treaty limits). This is important before next year's review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Work will likely then start between Washington and Moscow on a broader treaty aimed for ratification on the U.S. side before the next presidential campaign.

The Moscow summit agreement on transit of US supplies and equipment to Afghanistan is more important than it may appear. The logistics lines through Pakistan are under greater peril than most Americans realise, and could even be cut altogether. Effective northern supply routes are not just important now, they may become essential soon. The Russians served their own interests by signing a wide-ranging deal on transit because using the Russian route will make transit through/over Georgia and Azerbaijan that much less important to the United States. Moscow is serious about Afghanistan, though it certainly wants the US to depend on its support to avoid failure there.  The big question is how the transit deal will work in practice.  Anyone with experience of air
travel in and through Russia knows that problems with authorities are the norm, even when the Kremlin actually wants things to go smoothly.

This will bear close watching.

The third summit agreement was to establish a mechanism for other bilateral cooperation under the immediate supervision of the two foreign ministers. According to many reports, in London Obama proposed a commission headed by Vice President Biden and Prime Minister Putin, along the lines of the old Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission of Clinton-Yeltsin days. This, predictably, was rejected outright. Many ex-Clinton administration people look back on the Clinton-Yeltsin years as a golden age, whereas the Russians (leadership and man on the street) see the Nineties as a period of humiliation and national disgrace never to be repeated. This ill-judged proposal communicated to the Russians that the Obama team thinks of a "reset" as a return to the Nineties, rather than starting a new type of relationship. In addition, the proposal equated Putin with Chernomyrdin -- a slap in the face for the dominant figure in the current Russian leadership.

Thus, in Moscow the agreement was for a commission run by Secretary of State Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The problem is that foreign ministries everywhere are weak players within their domestic governing machines. Hillary Clinton brings greater power to her role by her own political status, but Lavrov does not. He is a top-notch professional diplomat, one of the smartest around these days, but not a heavy hitter at home. It remains to be seen who will be assigned on both sides to make this new commission setup actually work. The two governments are not symmetrical, so in Washington the White House and NSC must be engaged, while in Moscow many of the ministries concerned fall under Prime Minister Putin's chain of command rather than under Medvedev's presidential staff. A likely major figure on the Russian side will be former ambassador in Washington Yuri Ushakov, now Putin's chief foreign affairs aide.

Each of the three areas of titular agreement at the Moscow summit -- arms control, Afghan resupply and transit, and the bilateral commissions -- are works in progress at early stages of development.  Any or all could get bogged down due to inherent difficulties or because of an erosion of the broader bilateral climate. Others remain on the table, where there is not even the tincture of agreement. For example, Vice President Biden's trip to Ukraine and Georgia will be a delicate diplomatic mission, designed to convey to both countries that their interests have not be compromised by the United States but also to communicate to the leaderships in Kiev (if there is one) and Tbilisi (if its president can be called a leader) that Washington has major equities with Moscow that they should not compromise - as Georgian President Saakashvili did in spades last summer.

On form, President Obama did not perform as well on this foreign venture as on previous ones. Granted, Moscow was the toughest foreign house where he has yet performed, with his charisma making nary a dent in Russian scepticism toward the United States. Still, he did not handle things as well as he should have. Obama's clumsy effort before the summit to drive a wedge between Medvedev and Putin was, bluntly, the act of a neophyte on the world stage. He had to backtrack on the
issue repeatedly while in Moscow, looking ineffectual from a Russian perspective.

Obama also did not use his limited time well. Taking his family to Ghana was a public relations coup, but in Russia achieved nothing. A single breakfast meeting with Putin was a missed opportunity. Putin is the leading figure in the Russian leadership, and may continue to be throughout Obama's tenure. Given the historical precedents, it would not be a surprise if Putin were in power long after Obama is retired. Not to engage Putin in depth and with full courtesy was a mistake.

Again, Putin is not Chernomyrdin.

Finally, Obama's speech to students received only polite applause for a good reason; it was not an effective speech. True, there is precious little good feeling among the younger Russian elite toward the United States at this time, but still Obama's approach was poor. In common with similar speeches by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama condescended to the Russians, making sanctimonious tributes about their history and culture not likely to persuade a youthful audience. A speech dealing candidly and directly with issues such as nuclear proliferation, the economic crisis, global warming, or other problems these young Russian will have to live with might have earned their respect. To talk down to these Russians, as Obama did, could not. No one likes being talked down to, least of all educated Russians by an American who is a newcomer to their country. The speech was definitely a missed opportunity for a change of tone in communicating with Russia.

In sum, the relationship is more or less on track on substance, but within the context that American-Russian relations are narrow and mostly zero-sum, especially for Russia. Moscow's foreign policy experts fear a successful Obama presidency will come at Russia's expense, because Russia succeeds in the world largely where America fails (as in Venezuela). Only a few months of Obama in office demonstrate again that the world, in bad times as in good, is centred on the United States, while Russia's global standing is a shadow of what it was two decades ago and much removed from the fantasies of only two years ago. The days when Russia could think of itself as shoulder to shoulder with America are long gone, and with China already a thing of the past. As the G-8 gives way to a G-20, Russia's place at the global top table will be below the salt.  Investors are now saying that instead of BRIC, one should think in terms of BRIM (Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico), reflecting the comparable size of the four economies. For Russians of the new elite to watch China join a new superpower status with America while they are paired with not one but two Latin American countries is simply unendurable. This is the psychosis American diplomacy must reckon with in trying to manage those issues with Russia where America's national interests are engaged. Not an easy task, and one requiring the new U.S. administration to perform better than it did in Moscow.