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Six Questions for Ariel Cohen on Obama’s Efforts to Restart U.S.–Russian Relations


Today Barack Obama wraps up a lengthy visit to Russia in which arms control has been a focal point, and he moves on to the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy. I turn to the Heritage Foundation’s chief Russia watcher, Ariel Cohen, for a critical take on the president’s visit. What has he achieved, and what went wrong?

1. The Obama team talks about a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations, but the talk about arms limitations seems remarkably like something from an earlier era—the seventies. Has Obama set the right priorities?


I think that Obama reached for the low-hanging fruit in the Moscow talks. His immediate objectives both with respect to Afghanistan and arms control were plainly in the realm of the feasible. But Obama went for feasible instead of desirable–or necessary. The larger U.S. agenda with Russia includes a number of additional pressing issues that still need to be addressed. It includes four things at a minimum. First, the United States needs an understanding with Russia to the effect that robust and effective sanctions can and should be pursued jointly. Second, Russia needs to be nudged to accept a cooperative posture on missile defense. Third, the United States needs to continue to press for the rule of law, a free media, and acceptable human rights standards. Fourth, the United States should press for the independence and integrity of the other post-Soviet states that the Russians collectively call the “near abroad.” On this last point, the Americans and Russians just spoke past one another.

2. Is Obama likely to come out of Moscow with what he wants on arms limitations?

Yes—as I noted, he was careful to go after just what was obtainable. But many closely related issues, like the missile defense issue, were simply papered over in the current talks. There was an agreement to jointly “study the questions further.” Obama has indicated greater ambitions, going beyond the agreed limits for the nukes after the current agreement is signed. He may run into trouble with that if he advocates cuts beyond the agreed-upon levels, as future treaties need to be ratified by the Senate. And Russia may try to link further progress on arms limitations with the missile defense initiative.

3. The sore point in U.S.-Russian relations of late has been Georgia. In the weeks leading up to Obama’s visit, Russia launched heavy military exercises on the Georgian frontier and has worked to get international observers out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Is this a sign of more conflict to come?

Both sides said they don’t want more hostilities in Georgia, but there may be people in Moscow who think otherwise. Saakashvili remains in power and is a thorn in Russia’s side. Russia’s emasculation of the OSCE observer mission for the ceasefire indicates that all the talk of a rule-based security regime in Europe is just talk. And the United States doesn’t and shouldn’t accept dismemberment of Georgia, with one third of its territory (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) under de facto Russian control.

4. It’s noteworthy that Ahmadinejad departed Iran at the peak of the recent troubles to attend a conference in Russia, where he chatted amiably with President Medvedev. Is it correct to say that Russia views Iran’s nuclear aspirations as more opportunity than threat? And what consequences does this have for U.S. efforts to deal with Iran?

I sat through numerous briefings by senior Russian officials who poo-pooed Iranian missile and nuclear programs and swore that Iran would never develop long-range missile and nuclear programs. To Russia’s feigned surprise, Iran recently launched a satellite—a fact that indicates much progress in their ballistic missile program. In fact Russia may not have been so surprised. Russians have much better intelligence out of Iran than we do. The Kremlin has sought to use Iran as a battering ram against the United States, and against U.S. allies: the moderate Sunni states of the Gulf, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. Iran is a major market for Russian technology and services. Iran generates instability in the Gulf, which contributes to high oil prices. That’s good for Russia, which is a high-cost oil producer. And Russia demonstrated support for Ahmadinejad when the Basij militia was cracking skulls and shooting young women in the streets of Teheran. So it is true that many in Russia’s elites see some benefit in Iran’s nuclear program.

5. The United States has gotten Russian approval for transshipment of military hardware for the effort in Afghanistan—a concession that comes only after the United States succeeded in securing supply arrangements with a number of Central Asian states that Moscow apparently opposed behind the scenes. How do you read this?

This reflects recognition in Moscow at the highest level that Afghanistan going back and falling into hands of the Taliban would be a disaster for Russia’s allies in Central Asia. When Russia engineered the expulsion of the U.S. Air Force base from the Manas airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the United States was sent a strong message that our Central Asian policy needs the Kremlin stamp of approval. But at the moment, the United States and Russia are pursuing a joint policy towards Afghanistan that serves the national interests of both countries. The loss of the Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan in 2005, the near loss of Manas Air Base this year, and the lack of progress in gaining a military presence in Turkmenistan force the United States to recognize the practical limits of its power projection in Central Asia and the ability of Russia and China to dictate terms of engagement to the United States in Central Asia.

6. Obama mentioned the Khodorkovsky case and expressed concern about the independence of Russian media, but they seem to have reciprocated with a media snubbing. What could Obama have done that he did not do to press the point on the troubling chill in the air of Russian democracy?

First, before departing for Moscow, Obama said that Putin “has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.” That was a mistake. Putin retorted acidly that he doesn’t do splits. President Obama should pursue matters like the assassination of exposé journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the imprisonment of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and other human rights and rule of law issues. But he needs to do this behind closed doors directly with the man who is calling the shots, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin–not to diss Putin publicly. Maybe Obama just blurted what he thinks, which may not be good diplomacy. While I don’t disagree with Obama’s overall assessment, it was a mistake for him to share it with the Associated Press. And second, President Obama should’ve taken up the issue of anti-Americanism in the Russian media. With all national TV channels being under government control, the only way to do it was to take it all the way to the top, to Putin and Medvedev, and demand that the mouthpieces cease and desist their anti-American, brainwashing, hate-spewing effluvia.

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