An update on Condolleezza Rice’s and Robert Gates’ visit to Moscow.

The Americans (Condolleezza Rice of the US Department of State and Robert Gates of the Pentagon) demanded meetings with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin separately and in precisely this order. Rice for one couldn’t wait to meet with Medvedev. “It will be interesting to listen to what Medvedev thinks about the future of the Russian-American relations and on what he thinks in terms of the economic and political reforms in Russia itself,” she told journalists en route to Moscow. “Some of his statements indicate that Medvedev wants to see Russia more open. I sincerely hope that he means it.”

Sources in the US Department of State claim that Rice went to Moscow to try and gauge Medvedev’s readiness and determination to promote the policy Putin proclaimed in his Munich speech.

Boarding the plane for Moscow, Gates in his turn boasted that he was going to Moscow with new suggestions concerning Washington’s plans to install the US national missile defense in Europe. In fact, Gates was quite resolute. “The Russians will have to decide one fine day if they really want to be our partners (and that’s what we’ve been offering them) or continue to play games just to slow down the process.” What the new suggestions came down to is the following: the United States will postpone completion of installation of its objects in East Europe pending hard evidence of appearance in Iran of the missiles capable of reaching Europe. As far as the Pentagon is concerned, it will be a guarantee that the US national missile defense is not aimed at Russia and poses no threats to it.

Washington’s determination to force the missile defense issue is attributed to the fact that the active presidential campaign in the United States is under way and the US Administration is about to leave the White House. The American authorities need at least some mutually acceptable compromise with the Kremlin to be sure that the next US Administration will proceed along the same lines. In the meantime, it is the future of the whole missile defense project that looks somewhat uncertain. Candidate John McCain seems to be the only politician to be stone-cold confident of the necessity of the US national missile defense in Europe. His trigger-happy political team would dearly like to strike at Iran. Deployment of the US national missile defense in Europe therefore is but an element of war preparations. Other candidates are less sure with regard to the necessity of the defense missile, even though the whole program was actually put into motion by Bill Clinton, one of the candidates’ spouse. Hillary Clinton’s foreign political advisor Madeline Albright (ex-State Secretary) maintains for example that the idea to deploy the US national missile defense was erroneous in the first place and should therefore be reconsidered. Barak Obama’s men are even more resolute. They want missile defense dismantled altogether.

In other words, the American negotiators desperately need maximum progress at the talks with Russia at this point or the next US Administration may abandon the whole program. As a matter of fact, official Washington is actively discussing the idea of some sort of symbolic document the leaving presidents should sign. The document in question will sum up the eight years of their cooperation. Washington hopes that the document will elaborate at length on the subject of missile defense.

John Bolton, recently Undersecretary of State and US ambassador to the UN, announced the other day that the Russian authorities know that the US national missile defense poses no threats to Russia. According to Bolton, the Kremlin is using the issue as a leverage, one with which to elicit concessions from the United States.

Putin’s agreement to attend the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, on April 12-14 attaches additional importance to the meetings in Moscow currently under way.

Gazeta Wyborcza maintains that Putin informed Angela Merkel of Germany during their meeting not long ago that he was going to Bucharest only in return for abandonment of the idea of the Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine. (The Membership Action Plan is one of the phases preceding actual membership.) The Kremlin nevertheless denies all and any bargaining on that score.

Sources close to the US Department of State claim that the final decision concerning the Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine is to be made yet. President of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili currently on a visit to the United States was quoted as saying last Sunday that the struggle for membership in the Alliance was peaking these days (with the implication that the next several days would decide all). In other words, Putin’s consent to go to Bucharest may mean that the United States has chosen to heed Russian stand on the matter. “Whether or not to grant Georgia and Ukraine membership is something for NATO countries and not Russia to decide,” a senior official in Washington said. “Russia cannot aspire for any veto powers on the matter. On the other hand, Washington should remember that membership is only for the countries prepared for it.”

Russian-American official contacts are quite frequent these days. Presidents Putin and Bush talked over the phone last week. Putin even said he had received a lengthy letter from his American counterpart. Along with everything else, Putin received US Ambassador William Burns to discuss his forthcoming meeting with Bush.

Negotiations in Moscow will continue today. Rice and Gates will meet with their Russian opposite numbers Sergei Lavrov and Anatoly Serdyukov.


Can Russia and the United States accomplish a breakthrough in the talks? No, they cannot – first and foremost because of the political situation in these two countries.

Bush’s Administration is one of the “lamest ducks” in history. The whole world is waiting for it to step down.

As for Moscow, it elected a new president. The whole mechanism of state power will have to be re-attuned now. The Kremlin’s foreign political actions will be cautious because a balance between continuity and innovations is needed. Both Russian leaders will be aware of each other and many other factors, domestic and foreign alike. This state of affairs does not facilitate any revolutionary steps. Suspicions are what it does facilitate.

Avoiding an outright conflict in the next several months is what the Kremlin will have to make sure of. It is not going to be easy. Kosovo, NATO summit agenda, expansion of the US national missile defense, developments in the post-Soviet countries, and even the situation in China (Tibet) – each of these factors may spoil things for the new Russian and American leaders who will then find themselves all but incapacitated by the legacy of the previous period.

Ensuring its leadership in the changing world where new powerful centers of economic and political might appear is what Washington is after. The task is formidable indeed. Ideological attractiveness of the United States is weaker now than ever before. International institutes in the meantime are all but ruined. Moscow faces a more or less similar problem. It has to solidify its positions in the rapidly changing world, a world where underpopulated countries with economies centered around raw materials export can never be safe.