A Give-and-Take Summit

The first summit between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is just round the corner and so far there has only been perfunctory mention of this in the media.

By Jonathan Power (Power’s World)

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Published: Sun 5 Jul 2009, 9:58 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:59 AM

Odd, not to say irresponsible. If played right this could be the most important summit since presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush, having torn down the Iron Curtain, decided that they had enough confidence in the other side to introduce unilateral nuclear arms cuts, a valuable ancillary to what they formally agreed.

In the opinion of Georgi Arbatov, Gorbachev’s (and before that Brezhnev’s) foreign affairs adviser, the time is overdue for more unilateral cuts. “Being honest”, he told me two summers’ ago, “we in Russia are not right in our approach. We have so many weapons we could decrease the numbers unilaterally and set an example. We could dismantle our rockets, take others off alert, and the Americans would be obliged to follow us.”

When I recently asked one of Medvedev’s advisers, Igor Yurgens, what the “re-set” button statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meant, he replied, “the tone is different”. He then added, somewhat amusingly, “We have a new generation—Obama and Medvedev. Since they are both Internet lovers then the promise of change could be substantiated.”

Perhaps this new attitude counts, but as he said to me, “the line up on the US side seems more broad minded than before. I mention Rose Gottemoeller who is in charge of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks—she was in Moscow for four years—we see very good signs. General James Jones, now Obama’s National Security Adviser, when he was out of office worked with us on Iran in a very constructive manner.”

“The US and Russia have identical views on Afghanistan. We are on the same page as the US with North Korea. We have some nuances in policy towards Iran, but I think they are surmountable. So on those three plus Pakistan plus broader Middle East issues there is more that unites us than divides us.” On Iran, Yurgens was tough. “When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is saying the Zionist state must be eliminated from the face of the earth everybody in Russia thinks he has gone too far and if he is re-elected in June [this interview was made in May] and if there is no change in both vocabulary and in deeds then it’s my expectation that we will come even closer to the US in certain positions.”

However, Yurgens added an important caveat. “For the last century Iran has been a very good neighbour. But it was a dangerous neighbour, if we mishandled them. In the Soviet period, Azerbaijan, which has a population of 7 million people at home, had 25 million people on the territory of Iran. If Iran had started to make ethnic trouble and problems we would have been in a very bad situation. Iran never did, so unlike the US we cannot go all the way to hostility, unless we have a very real reason to do so.”

At the summit, the Americans as well as taking (their way of doing business under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) have to start to give under Obama. The Russians are extremely angry at the way the expansion of NATO was implemented. This, they say correctly, has broken the word of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and US Secretary of State James Baker given to Gorbachev, promising that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union if East and West Germany were allowed to unite.

While Moscow accepted that the US could expand the membership of NATO, it believed it was promised that this would not involve developing military infrastructure on the ground. But the US has set up military bases in Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria. It has capped this with building an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Washington has also made no bones about pushing to one side the claim of Moscow that it considers that the countries of the ex-Soviet Union are within its zone of interest just as, in effect, for its part, it accepts that the Monroe Doctrine still applies to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The Kremlin is also gravely upset that after the then president, Vladimir Putin, gave George W. Bush all the help he could after 9/11, for example not objecting to, even encouraging, the US making bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to fight the war in Afghanistan, there was again no give, just take. Later, Russia also dismantled its base and listening post in Cuba and pulled out of its naval base in Vietnam.

Under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the US took advantage of Russia whilst it was in a weakened state. To truly press the restart button and not just pretend to, Obama at the summit has to give more than he takes.

Jonathan Power is a foreign affairs commentator and analyst based in London



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