US-Russian reset in recess

US-Russian reset in recess

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s warning last week of measures Russia will take if the United States and NATO continue with their missile defense program in Europe, while sounding tough, is not the end of the U.S.-Russian reset. It is more of a pre-election recess of Russian-American diplomacy.

But his statement, and more broadly the state of U.S.-Russian arms-control efforts, reveals a broad gap in how the nuclear powers perceive each other’s importance. For Washington, Russia has fallen far down on the list of priorities.

The Russian political and security establishment continues to be obsessed with the U.S. Medvedev warned that should the U.S. continue with plans to base antimissile systems in Europe, Russia would arm its ballistic missiles with advanced defense-penetration systems, deploy tactical missiles on the border with Poland, and possibly withdraw from New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty).

The tough talk was provoked by Medvedev’s widely anticipated failure at a meeting with President Obama in Honolulu to secure a formal assurance that the NATO system could not be used against Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Obama’s refusal has its reasons, one of which is domestic. In some respects, for the White House to negotiate with the Republicans in Washington and even with parts of the U.S. government on any arms deal with Russia is more difficult than talking with the Russians.

As for Russia, a year after the promising Lisbon NATO summit – at which Russia and the alliance declared they were on a path toward a strategic partnership – and less than a year before the U.S. presidential elections, the Russians have concluded they have nothing to expect from Obama on arms issues.

One of the measures listed by the Russian president, radar under construction in Kaliningrad, is about early warnings of a missile attack, not about countering NATO’s future missile defenses. Similarly, giving Russia’s new strategic nuclear warheads a better capability to penetrate missile defenses is a long-standing program, which will continue as long as deterrence remains the mainstay of the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship.

Medvedev’s darker threat to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and Krasnodar to target Poland and Romania is, of course, anything but smart. By threatening the countries that will host U.S. interceptors, Russia will refurbish its reputation as a security threat to Europe and help solidify NATO, which could lead to a new confrontation if the U.S. responds by raising the ante and creating a threat to Russia analogous to the Euromissiles of the early 1980s.

With Europe and Russia having slipped down on the Pentagon’s priority list, a new Cuban missile crisis appears improbable. Nonetheless, the failure to agree on missile defenses in the past year has revealed troubling things about the American and Russian security establishments.

Beyond Afghanistan, and to some extent Iran, the U.S. sees Russia as a low-value partner. It does see it as a security risk in view of the anti-Americanism of much of Russia’s elite and Moscow’s close ties with a number of anti-U.S. regimes. But as America becomes ever more focused on the Asia-Pacific region, it is basically ignoring Russia, whose presence and influence there are considered negligible.

The Russians, on the contrary, persist in seeing the U.S. through the old Soviet prism of a superpower confrontation. Most officials in Moscow refuse to accept Iran as the real rationale for the U.S. / NATO missile-defense efforts and see them as a cover for undermining the Russian deterrent, hence the insistence on a dual key, which would give Moscow the means to block NATO’s system.

Both governments would do themselves a lot of good if they started to amend the state of affairs between them. Russia will not be a U.S. ally, but there are a number of areas in which the Russian connection has been and will continue to be useful for Washington: nonproliferation, terrorism and regional issues including those in the Asia-Pacific.

For Russia, seeking to regain the status of a politico-military peer of the U.S. and, through rearmament, restore the balance of terror as the only acceptable basis for the bilateral relationship, can come only at a high cost, both financial and political.

Russia needs to take a hard look at its negotiating position and cleanse it of the unrealistic demands for formal guarantees of U.S. non-aggression. The U.S., for its part, needs to hold out a prospect of serious technological transfers to Russia as part of missile defense cooperation.

Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The original of this abridged article was published on the Khaleej Times online.