A Lackluster U.S.-Russian Summit

July 11th, 2009

Russian Foreign Ministry representative Andrei Nesterenko said Thursday in televised comments that U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Moscow was “successful” and “groundbreaking.” His words echoed the overwhelmingly positive tone of U.S. and Russian media that covered the event earlier this week. Immediately following Obama’s breakfast meeting on Tuesday with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, STRATFOR sources close to Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev also made a point of noting that the visit was indeed a success and that concrete deals had been reached between the old Cold War rivals.

Appearances can be deceiving.

We were not exactly left with warm, fuzzy feelings in analyzing the U.S.-Russian summit. Going into this, Putin and his Kremlin posse had wanted to test just how seriously Obama was taking a key Russian demand: for the United States to recognize Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet region. The negotiations covered a range of issues, and a few notable deals were signed. One involved talks on replacing START, a strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty, and another touched on transporting U.S. military supplies through Russian airspace to Afghanistan. Obama also tossed Moscow a rhetorical bone by implying that Ukraine and Georgia were not ready for NATO membership, thus taking a step back from George W. Bush’s approach on NATO expansion.

From the Western point of view, this appears to be a great success. From the Kremlin’s point of view, however, this summit left much to be desired. The Russians made the offer on expanding U.S. military supply lines into Afghanistan ahead of the summit to get the ball rolling in the negotiations, but that offer can be rescinded just as easily as it was given. Additionally, the much more crucial and delicate negotiations on a ground transit route for military supplies through Russian territory easily could get mired in details and in Central Asian politics, should Moscow so choose. The United States agreed to a nuclear arms reduction deal, though that issue does not sit as high on the Russian priority list. Obama made his gesture on NATO, but that issue was already dead in the water — since the Germans and French have made clear that they are against expanding the security alliance, for fear of provoking Russia. The most critical issue for the Russians — U.S. efforts to build a ballistic missile defense (BMD) installation in Poland that effectively gives the Americans a strategic military foothold there, threatening Moscow on its very doorstep — was not something that Obama was willing to discuss with Putin. And that is precisely when the summit went south.

That evening, Obama, Medvedev and Putin — along with their wives — were expected to attend a lavish reception in the Kremlin, which was to be closed to the media. Putin, evidently dissatisfied with his meeting with Obama, backed out of the reception. Though Medvedev was still scheduled to attend, Obama then decided he would spend the evening at the hotel with Michelle and the kids. By then, the party was pretty much over, and the entire event was canceled in a hush.

Since then, the tone of enthusiasm over the summit in the Russian media has gradually been reduced, and a number of private meetings are taking place within the Kremlin. We still find it curious that the Russian leadership made a concerted effort to paint the summit as a success, perhaps to bring down Washington’s guard, but there is little doubt in our minds that the Russians feel stiffed. Now is the time for Putin and his circle to plan where and when Russia will next challenge the United States, to make its demands on BMD and Poland heard.

The Russians have been busy laying the groundwork for such a scenario. From Central Asia to the Caucasus to Central Europe, the Kremlin has assets entrenched to carry out its wishes and counter any U.S. moves in Russia’s near abroad. But if the Russians want to take things up a notch in dealing with the Americans, places like Iran, Poland, Germany and Turkey are likely to get a lot more interesting.

Iran is where Russia carries substantial leverage against the United States — whether by blocking sanctions, developing Iran’s nuclear capability or, most importantly, selling Tehran S-300 strategic air defense systems. Poland may be where the United States wants to develop a military foothold, but Putin has been working on intimidating and coaxing the Poles into cooperation ahead of his visit to Warsaw in September. Germany is already clashing with Washington on a number of economic issues, creating opportunities for the Russians to exploit, and Medvedev will be in Berlin next week to further strain that trans-Atlantic alliance. Turkey also will be hosting Putin in early August, a meeting that he will use to provide Ankara with political and economic incentives to keep a safe distance from the U.S. agenda in the former Soviet space.

Altogether, the plan that the Kremlin is quietly formulating will be designed to undermine the American alliance structure in Eurasia. Without pillars in Poland, Germany and Turkey, U.S. strategy in this region would be on weak legs, particularly when U.S. military capacity is already stretched thin by deployments in the Islamic world and when Russia retains leverage in key areas like Iran. The Russian leadership still has much to do in gaming out its next moves on this geopolitical chessboard, and the Kremlin’s prospects for success remain unclear. What is quite clear, however, is that Obama’s visit to Moscow was anything but groundbreaking or successful, and the next few months will be even more exciting to watch.

Attributed to www.stratfor.com

11th July 09

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