A moment of truth for Obama in Moscow By M K Bhadrakumar

4 July, 2009 – Asia Times Online

In the annals of Russian-American summitry, Moscow has never before choreographed a welcoming ceremony for the visiting United States president in this fashion. The dramatic run-up to the arrival of US President Barack Obama in Moscow on Monday underscores the complexities of the context in which the two countries are going through at the summit.

Russia has laid out its welcome carpet leading all the way from the rugged Caucasus, a theater of events that is interesting in the highest degree to US-Russia relations, to the Russian capital to receive Obama. It is a carpet of intriguing design, laden with compelling legends of the roots of conflict that acted as barriers to peaceful co-existence between the two powers, and the wisdom and valor of taking arms unseasonably without any unity of purpose.

Obama has only once been to Russia – on a US Congressional jaunt dominated by Richard Lugar. Yet, a statesman like Obama with an acute sense of history will not fail to take note of the excursion that awaits him next week. Washington is not amused. Vice President Joseph Biden has scheduled a visit to Ukraine and Georgia soon after the US-Russia summit in Moscow.

Tensions in the Caucasus
Russia began a massive military exercise, ‘Caucasus-2009’ in the North Caucasus area bordering Georgia on Monday. The week-long exercise is set to end on the day Obama arrives in Moscow. Itar-Tass quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Kalmykov as saying the exercises are being conducted on a scale similar to the Soviet-era drills.

Involving 8,500 servicemen, 450 armored personnel carriers and 250 artillery guns and drawing units from the air force, air defense force, airborne troops, the Caspian Flotilla and the Black Sea Fleet, the maneuvers cover a wide territory including Krasnodar and Rostov regions as well as North Ossetia and Chechnya.

While the growing signs of Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus may partly explain the logic of the exercises, an obvious purpose is to demonstrate Russian firepower to prevent any adventurism on the part of Georgia against its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Clearly, Moscow is leaving nothing to chance and is responding to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) exercises in Georgia in May, which President Dmitry Medvedev had called a ‘provocation’. Russia has not invited NATO observers to the ‘Caucasus – 2009’ war games.

Needless to say, there is pervasive skepticism among Western analysts whether the ‘reset’ of US-Russia relations that Obama administration had promised, and the two presidents had endorsed when they met in London in April on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meet, could commence at all in the current circumstances.

Russian political analysts are even more skeptical. Sergei Karaganov, the influential chairman of the Council for Russia’s Foreign and Defense Policy, feels the underlying nature of the concept of a ‘reset’ itself is ‘extremely fragile’.

‘On the Russian side, there is more skepticism as Russia does not see real changes in US policies and believes they are more of a cosmetic nature,’ he said. The Russian feeling, Karaganov added, is that the US is ‘unwilling to make substantial changes in their policies’ on issues such as NATO expansion or pan-European security. A report released in Moscow over the weekend underlined that ‘just a reset’ won’t do in US-Russia relationship, but a wholesome ‘reconfiguration’ is needed.

A play on words? Not exactly. Meanwhile, American analysts have their own litany of complaints about Russia – ‘this renewed sense of [Russian] pride’ and the ensuing ‘arrogance, cockiness, assertiveness, self-confidence and even aggressiveness that is combined at the same time with paranoia, insecurity and hyper-sensitivity,’ according to David Kramer, a senior US official in the State Department for more than eight years.

What emerges beyond doubt is that no breakthrough can be expected out of the summit in Moscow. But then, why is Obama going ahead with this ‘working visit’?

Selective engagement
Washington has a pressing need to engage Russia specifically and selectively on certain issues. A carrot is being held out that if Moscow could agree on some or all of these handful of specific steps that Washington has on its check list, there is a possibility that these agreements might then be carried out so that the relationship could move in a more positive direction in the coming period.

In short, Obama’s act of pushing the button to reset the moribund US-Russia relationship during the Moscow summit is itself in doubt, while the promise to do so remains on the table.

In an unusually tough ‘curtain raiser’ to Obama’s visit, Michael McFaul, senior director in the National Security Council for Russian and European Affairs, made it clear that the US president has ‘no illusions about the yawning divide’ between the two countries. He said Russian officials think of the world in ‘zero-sum terms. The United States is considered an adversary … and they think that our number one objective in the world is to make Russia weaker, to surround Russia, to do things that make us stronger and Russia weaker.’

He added Obama will spell out the US national interests ‘very explicitly’ on such issues as NATO expansion. ‘We’re going to talk about them very frankly … and then we’re going to see if there are ways that we can have Russia cooperate on things we define as our national interests.’

The ‘things’ that McFaul mentioned as principal to the US national interests essentially narrow down to three priority issues in Obama’s foreign policy: strategic arms control with Russia, the situation around Iran and the war in Afghanistan. However, there is no certainty that these are quite ‘doable’ issues, either. This partly explains the pre-summit grandstanding on both sides.

By now it is clear that serious blocks may come in the way of negotiating a new nuclear arms control agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expires December 5. Russia robustly opposes the planned US deployment of a missile defense system in Central Europe and the long-term US plans to build a global system. The issue is not what the missile defense system is currently about from a technological perspective, but what it can turn out to be as the US keeps upgrading the technology and brings it close to 100% accuracy.

An effective missile defense system fundamentally undermines nuclear parity between the two powers and tilts the strategic balance prevailing for more than six decades decisively in favor of the US. But it is impossible for Obama to altogether jettison the US’s missile defense program.

At best, he can delay it for two or three years (which in any case is warranted due to the US’s financial crisis at the moment). Equally, a hitch has surfaced over what is called the ‘return potential’ that the US wishes to preserve even while agreeing on reducing the nuclear warheads. That is to say, the US wishes to retain the dismantled 4,000 or so warheads in warehouses and also keep its current 1,200 delivery vehicles (ground-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers) as part of its conventional forces for any use in a war.

Unsurprisingly, the Russians disagree. Simply put, Russia fears a huge double disadvantage in terms of its own far smaller stockpiles of warheads and missiles since its ‘return potential’ is much weaker. That is to say, the proposed nuclear arms reduction will only strengthen US military predominance in exponential terms. With such huge superiority in the US’s conventional forces already, it is on its nuclear arsenal that Russia counts to maintain its overall military strategy.

At the same time, Russia lacks the resources to build its own global missile defense. Thus, Russia has drawn a ‘red line’ to both the US deployment of the missile defense system in Europe and the NATO’s expansion. Russia’s National Security Strategy Until 2020, which was unveiled on May 12 explicitly states:

The potential to maintain global and regional stability will be substantially narrowed with the deployment of elements of the US’s global missile defense system in Europe … The unacceptability for Russia of the plans to advance the [NATO] Alliance’s military infrastructure to Russia’s borders and attempts to impart global functions to it, which run counter to the standards of international law, will remain the defining factor in relations with the NATO.

There is no doubt that the Moscow summit next week will announce some sort of ‘progress’ – most likely, a ‘report card’ – in the negotiations leading to a new nuclear arms control pact. Possibly, even a framework for a new accord may be announced, as it is customary for US-Russia summits to produce some results. But a final deal could still be hampered.

Differences over Iran
Given the recent unrest in Iran and Obama’s stance on it, all eyes will be focused on what the Moscow summit produces on the issue. No doubt, the US desperately needs Russia’s cooperation if it is to effectively pressure Tehran in the coming period. But it is extremely doubtful if the summit in Moscow can bring about any real US-Russian convergence over the situation surrounding Iran.

The common impression may be that the Russian position on Iran has shifted lately. The Group of Eight (G-8) foreign ministers’ statement issued in Trieste, Italy, on June 26 condemning the violence in Tehran has been interpreted to mean that Russia has joined ranks with the US and Britain. But Russia has merely gone along with the consensus opinion, which is usual in multilateral diplomacy.

In fact, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the media at Trieste that while Russia would express its ‘most serious concern’ over the use of force on protestors in Tehran and the loss of lives, ‘at the same time, we will not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs’, as Russia ‘presumes’ that the discords ‘will be sorted out in line with the democratic procedures and laws existing for that’.

In real terms, Lavrov expressed understanding for the Iranian regime’s stance. Again, on the nuclear issue, Lavrov reiterated that ‘in all circumstances’ Russia insists on a peaceful settlement – even if there are ‘any changes in the Iranian leadership’s position’ – and that the international community must ‘show patience and follow our concerted policy’. It was in this sense that Lavrov evaluated the G-8 statement as ‘overall … well balanced and useful in every sense’.

On Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement, which virtually pre-empts any attempt by the US to present any move to pressure Iran at the Moscow summit. It read, ‘We [Russia] believe that sanctions against Iran over its internal problems would be illegal and counterproductive. They could provoke unwelcome developments in the situation in Iran and the region.’ The statement reaffirmed the belief in Moscow that the emergent situation following the disputed election in Iran should be normalized ‘through legal means’ (which is also the official stance in Tehran).

Reflecting the official thinking, the government daily Rossiskaya Gazeta also featured an interview with the prominent politician close to the Kremlin, Mikhail Margelov, who holds the position of chairman of the Federation Council’s 9parliament) committee on international affairs. Margelov said, ‘Outwardly, this [unrest in Tehran] very much resembles the progress of ‘color revolutions’ … In any case, the international community will most probably have to deal with the ‘intractable’ [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad for one more presidential term … I believe that no radical changes are to be expected in the Russian policy in this connection.’

A top Iran expert in Moscow, Radzhab Safarov, director of the Center for Iran Studies, was explicit by saying the West, ‘led by the US’, sought a regime change in Iran and the protesters in Tehran ‘indeed are receiving finances and all sorts of ideas from the West in order to bring them out onto the streets’ but of no avail. In an interview with the Russian government-controlled Center TV, Safarov asserted that the Western attempts ‘don’t threaten Iran’s political system which is as strong and consolidated as ever’.

A tango in the Hindu Kush
In contrast with the divergent US-Russian perceptions regarding Iran, the two powers have come much closer on the war in Afghanistan. As the Kremlin’s senior foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko put it recently, ‘We welcome the increasingly transparent US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The space for cooperation with the West on Afghanistan can be broader.’ Moscow sees cooperation on Afghanistan as a key element in any effort to reset the US-Russia relations.

Prikkhodko underlined this saying that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would not ‘try to take over the initiative’ in settling the Afghan conflict from the US-led coalition. However, Russia seeks a stronger role. For example, the effectiveness of fighting the drug traffic from Afghanistan is falling rather than rising. ‘A stronger role means stronger responsibility. If we claim a stronger role, that will ultimately take us towards taking part in the international force. We are not going to send troops to Afghanistan. For now the main responsibility for Afghanistan lies with the countries forming the international forces. We are going there mainly to take part in construction.’

That is, of course, a vast simplification of Russian policy. Moscow is concerned that Washington is striving to expand NATO’s presence in Central Asia. Equally, the US has shut the door firmly on any form of cooperation between NATO on one side and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization or the SCO on the other. Nor has Washington allowed Moscow to play any significant role in the search for conflict-resolution in Afghanistan. Washington continues to engage the SCO member countries individually on cooperation with regard to Afghanistan. China and Kazakhstan have even been invited to deploy troops.

Russia has, in essence, taken the initiative to muzzle its way by creating a trilateral format with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The presidents of the three countries held a joint meeting on the sidelines of the SCO in Yekaterinburg, Russia, last month. A foreign minister level meeting since took place last Friday in Trieste.

Moscow is seeing potentials in developing this tripartite cooperation. The three foreign ministers agreed to intensify cooperation but ‘in line with other initiatives of the international community’.

They decided to explore the potentials of cooperation in certain specific areas such as border control, exchange of intelligence relating to international terrorism, training of anti-terrorist and anti-drug personnel, among others. But, interestingly, they will also be promoting good-neighborly relations and regional stability and seek economic cooperation, apart from expanding their ‘interaction on matters of mutual interest’ in the United Nations, SCO and the Organization of Islamic Conference. The three foreign ministers also agreed to ‘study and develop a common vision and common perspective for peace ad development of the region’.

In short, while not ruffling US feathers, Russia has developed an independent track of its own vis-a-vis the two main protagonists of the US’s ‘AfPak’ strategy.

Moscow has shrewdly worked on Pakistan’s extreme keenness to develop a politico-military track to Moscow. Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kiani was hosted in Moscow last month on a visit that was high in protocol. The visit has been scheduled against the backdrop of the boosting of the US troop presence in Afghanistan and the commencement of long-awaited military operations against the Taliban.

What seems to be happening is that Islamabad has paid Washington in its own coin for its continued attempts to involve India over the Afghan problem as a concerned regional power, despite Pakistani objections. That Moscow has taken the risk of annoying New Delhi by creating an exclusive regional format with Pakistan points towards the acute geopolitical rivalries in the Hindu Kush.

A similar Russian approach is apparent in Moscow’s decision not to oppose the US tooth and nail in the latter’s drive to retain some sort of base facilities in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. This has led to a new formula whereby the US will be allowed to operate a ‘transit center’, with the existing transport infrastructure preserved, while at the same time tripling the amount of fees it pays to the Kyrgyz government.

Shooting down the media speculations that Bishkek acted suo moto without Russia’s concurrence (which is unlikely in terms of Kygyzstan’s obligations as a Collective Security Treaty Organization member country), Medvedev openly stated that Russia regarded the Manas rear service base center to be integral to the fight against international terrorism.

Yet another vector appeared a while ago in the nature of the Russian decision to allow the transit of non-lethal military materials for NATO forces in Afghanistan. On the eve of the US-Russia summit, Russian commentators have hinted that ‘Moscow could do more by allowing the transportation of military cargo to Afghanistan across its territory’, apart from an increase in the freight traffic along the so-called northern route.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said after the informal meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on Sunday in Trieste, ‘As for military transits, we have signed agreements with Germany, France and Spain. We are also considering a request from Italy.’ Moscow is estimating that the US faces acute difficulties in dispatching military and civilian freight to Afghanistan via Pakistan as the US and its allies are losing currently up to 200 trucks a month in transit due to militant attacks on the convoys.

Russia also sizes up that while the Americans keep talking of developing a transit route via Georgia, this is easier said than done as new transport terminals will have to be built or at the very least modernized along the Caspian coastline; the new route will include double transshipment; and it will also have to use rather worn-out Soviet-era rails. The ongoing construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway corridor may shorten the time taken for shipment, but on the other hand, a need arises for the crossing of the Caspian Sea and further transportation to Afghanistan, which means that route can at best be only auxiliary.

Russian spokesmen have given the spin that in a globalized world where security is indivisible and interdependence between nations is the compelling reality, Moscow’s and the US’s interests are not only not clashing in Afghanistan but are in fact coinciding. The argument follows that the present time is ‘no time and place for a zero-sum game, while an early pullout of the US force [from Afghanistan] will pose a threat to Russia’s national interests in a strategic Central Asian region’.

Therefore, Moscow must rise to the occasion as a responsible world power and ‘tangibly help’ Washington in resolving the Afghan problem.

The argument is not altogether sophistry. Moscow’s general mood towards the menace of terrorism is nowadays turning angry. The terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus region show a sharp increase in number and ferocity lately. More than 300 incidents of terrorism took place in North Caucasus this year alone, which claimed the lives of 75 security personnel, including some high-profile killings such as that of the Daghestani interior minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov in early June.

Medvedev paid an unannounced visit to Dagestan wearing a leather jacket and dark glasses, and looking very tough, the youthful president took to some earthy rhetoric usually associated with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. ‘This is extremism being supplied to us from abroad when various psychos come to crap on our territory,’ Medvedev reportedly said in comments that were broadcast on state television. ‘The work to bring about order, destroy the terrorist rabble should be continued,’ he stressed.

Curiously, it is perfectly possible to replace what Medvedev said in the context of what the US faces in Afghanistan. He said:

It is the poverty of the population, the high unemployment rate, the huge scale of corruption and systemic deformations in the [local] government administration when its effectiveness drops, which leads to the loss of confidence and of the authority of the state. It cannot be allowed… Anti-drug activities, in essence, go hand in hand with the fight against terrorism. We understand that money of a drugs nature, money received from the sale of drugs, ultimately goes to feed terrorists. We are today at the situation when our neighbors, unfortunately, supply us with problems of this sort. We should fight together with them against these threats. Of course, this also complicated the situation in the Caucasus.

Through these labyrinthine maneuverings, and no doubt borne out of the harsh realities of actual life, Russia hopes to create leverage in the US-Russia relations by offering greater cooperation to Obama over Afghanistan. It is entirely within the realms of possibility that at a juncture when the overall US-Russia relationship is lurching dangerously close towards a breakdown, cooperation in the Hindu Kush might just about provide a much-needed leitmotif for the Moscow summit.

As Medvedev noted in a comment posted on the Kremlin website on Thursday, ‘The new US administration under President Obama is showing its willingness to change the situation and build more effective, reliable and ultimately more modern relations. We are ready for this.’

Moscow will be calculating that it pays to help Obama ease the pain where the wound hurts most at the moment and runs the high risk of turning gangrene. The resultant goodwill will be useful to portray that US-Russia relations can still improve in a serious, sustainable way.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.

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