Thursday, March 26, 2009

U.S., Russia Push 'Reset' Button; Distrust Remains

While most of the industrialized world prepares to fix the world's economy next week in London, an important geopolitical sideshow will be taking place when the U.S. and Russia discuss an old Cold War sticking point.

With the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) due to expire this December, old diplomatic ploys and negotiations are returning to the table while both sides have retained suspicions of each other's intentions. Back in 1982, President Reagan presented the then-Soviet Union with an offer to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons pointed at each other. The beginnings of the START suffered many starts and stops during the 1980s. The treaty was not signed until 1991.

The Bush Administration's announcement late last year to install weapons interceptors in Poland and radar capabilities in the Czech Republic -- two former members of the Iron Curtain -- is reminiscent of an earlier tactic engineered in 1983 when Reagan announced plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as "Star Wars". The Soviets perceived it as a threat, even though the plan's feasibility and cost was widely questioned. The presence of SDI and, in hindsight, last-ditch efforts by the dying Soviet empire to show strength were a few of the reasons the agreement took nine years to ratify.

The other piece to the puzzle, then as it is now, is growing Russian insecurity over its Central Asian border, namely Afghanistan and Iran. The Obama Administration deftly linked missile defenses in Eastern Europe with the need to limit Iran's growing nuclear capabilities. A not-so-secret letter between Obama and Medvedev laid out this tit-for-tat reasoning that U.S. missiles in Poland would not be needed with a nuclear-neutered Iran.

Columbia University Political Science Professor Robert Legvold told the Voice of America that while Russia and Iran have strong commercial ties, he believes they have limited power in persuading the Iranians politically.

If the route chosen by the United States and Europe is to try to increase the pressure of sanctions, particularly in terms of petroleum and the export of refined petroleum products to Iran, then Russia would become crucial in that respect. But it's not clear that even tougher sanctions with everybody participating will force Iran's hand. So I think at the end of the day, there's a limit to how much the Russians can do in shaping Iran's choice.

Whether Russia has any real influence over Iran is also clouded by the suggestion that the U.S. and its NATO partners are unlikely to bargain with Russia at the expense of the Cold War organization's solidarity. During a meeting yesterday with the general-secretary of NATO, Obama said as much and reiterated support for former Russian satellites of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO in the future -- a topic already infuriating the Kremlin.

U.S.-Russian relations as it relates to Afghanistan will also take prominence during the April 1 summit. Legvold, who with Stanford professor Coit Blacker will discuss U.S.-Russian relations with The Commonwealth Club's CEO Gloria Duffy this Monday, said Russian's attitude towards Afghanistan has been inconsistent.

They clearly are uncomfortable with a NATO and a U.S. military presence in Central Asia. But I think they genuinely are concerned about failure in Afghanistan, which would allow the Taliban back into power and create potential instability in Central Asia, which is their southern front. So we will have to see where they go in the longer run. But right now they have not been as helpful as they could have been, even if you put the best face on it.

The problem today may not be nuclear war between the one-time super rivals, but a consensus of how post-Cold War Europe and Central Asia should be divided. Both sides seem committesd to renewing START on the basis of nuclear warheads as deterrents rather than vehicle of threats. The question is whether both sides can reconcile their differences with the common need to quell instability in the Middle East.

Columbia University professor Robert Legvold and Director and Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Relations Coit Blacker will discuss U.S.-Russian relations with CEO Gloria Duffy Monday at The Commonwealth Club of California at 6 p.m. Click here for more program information.


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