Today, President Barack Obama arrives in Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, for a three-day summit. It will be their first face-to-face exchange since meeting in London in early April, when Obama was in Europe for the G-20 and NATO summits. After a frosty U.S.-Russian relationship during most of President George W. Bush’s term in office, this summit offers an opportunity to show Russia and the rest of the world that the new U.S. administration is serious about making a fresh start and is willing to put some substance behind that much-talked-about “reset button.”
While Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and missile defense will be on the summit agenda, the main issue will be replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which is set to expire in December. President George H.W. Bush signed START in 1991, after nearly a decade of negotiations led by the Reagan administration. The treaty significantly slashed warhead deployments in both countries and is largely credited with reducing Cold War-era nuclear tension. At home, START has long been a bipartisan goal, with support from both Democratic and Republican foreign policy experts.
A replacement treaty would mark the first time in almost two decades that the two countries, whose arsenals make up more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, have negotiated a binding and verifiable agreement to reduce their nuclear arms. Such a treaty would facilitate the reduction of nuclear stockpiles and help secure existing Russian nuclear material. A reduction in nuclear stockpiles would, in turn, reduce the risk of theft or illicit sale to criminal or terrorist networks. It would also reduce the risk of an accidental launch, like we almost saw in 1995 when Russia mistook a Norwegian weather satellite for a nuclear attack and almost started a nuclear war. Furthermore, without START, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) would be gutted because it depends on the verification mechanisms of START. In other words, it’s a big deal.
But any gains from possible agreement on START replacement go beyond arms control and nonproliferation. The U.S.-Russian relationship is still recovering from the nadir of post-Cold War relations that was reached during the most recent Bush administration. Both sides have their grievances; Russia strongly objects to the Bush administration’s missile defense program in Poland and the Czech Republic, U.S. recognition of Kosovo and U.S. criticism of Russia during its war with Georgia. The United States objects to Russia’s attempts to expand its sphere of influence and bully its neighbors. An agreement on a START replacement could provide an opportunity for the two powers to build some momentum in trying to repair their tattered relationship.
Improved relations are crucial because, quite frankly, we need Russia; few global challenges can be addressed effectively without Russian participation or at least cooperation. Immediate areas where cooperation is vital include the situations in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. Longer term issues include global climate change, energy security, recovery from the economic crisis and terrorism. The new U.S. administration understands the need for Russian input.
In his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February, Vice President Joe Biden said, “It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up with the presentation of a symbolic reset button. And when President Obama met with President Medvedev in London during the G-20 Summit, the two agreed to pursue a revived, pragmatic approach to arms control. A new progressive strategy vis-à-vis Russia, detailed in a just-released Center for American Progress report, would also recognize the need to encourage Russian development while, at the same time, addressing the challenges posed by an increasingly assertive Moscow. In particular, the Obama administration should focus on:
· Helping to integrate Russia into the international community, which would provide greater accountability and further integrate our common interests.
· Encouraging democracy and rule of law in Russia, which is consistent with both our values and interests.
· Bolstering our energy security and helping our allies become less dependent on Russia.
· Securing regional stability in the post-Soviet states by proactively working to prevent Russian interference in the internal affairs of independent countries it still sees as part of its sphere of influence.
None of this will be easy to achieve. But Presidents Obama and Medvedev have a historic opportunity to develop a pragmatic working relationship, one that would be beneficial to both countries—and the world.
Spencer P. Boyer is the director of international law and diplomacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.
James Lamond is a policy researcher at the National Security Network.