Hopeful signs in Russian-US security dialogue

US Vice President Joseph Biden made a noteworthy speech at the security conference in Munich – with a substantial section dedicated to Russia. Washington is indicating a wish to reach agreement with Moscow. Russia has also indicated that it’s prepared to cooperate with the United States.

The 45th International Security Conference concluded in Munich yesterday. The main event at this prestigious forum was a speech delivered by US Vice President Joseph Biden – with a substantial section dedicated to Russia. Washington is indicating a wish to reach agreement with Moscow. Russia has also indicated that it’s prepared to cooperate with the United States.

Biden’s first extensive foreign policy speech, delivered in Munich, sounded conciliatory. Biden, a well-known critic of Moscow, indicated immediately that at the Munich conference he was presenting the position of the Obama Administration. At the Munich conference in 2007, then-President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech full of anti-American criticism, marking the start of a new stage in the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington. This year, an attempt has been made to build bridges for cooperation. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, representing Moscow at the conference, also extended a hand to the USA.

Biden said: “It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.” For example, Russia and the USA can and should cooperate with the aim of breaking Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. They can and should ensure security for nuclear weapons and fissionable materials, preventing proliferation. They can and should renew verification procedures for the reduction of each other’s nuclear arsenals, as required by the START I treaty, which expires in December 2009 – and then move beyond existing agreements to “negotiate deeper cuts to our arsenals.”

Analysts note that all this is indeed possible – but it would require political will on the part of both Moscow and Washington. In Munich, Biden and Ivanov effectively confirmed that the Russian and US positions remain unchanged on one of their most serious differences: US plans to deploy an anti-missile base in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. Biden said: “We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost effective. We will do so in consultation with our NATO allies and with Russia.”

Ivanov reiterated that Moscow remains opposed to US plans for deplying missile defense system elements in Europe, since these bases would be “part of the American strategic infrastructure aimed at containing Russia’s nuclear missile arsenals.”

Ivanov noted that implementing a number of transparency and trust-building measures in the missile defense area could help alleviate Moscow’s concerns. This was a sign that Moscow is prepared to continue dialogue with Washington on missile defense.

Meanwhile, observed noted a “new” proposal made by Ivanov in Munich. He said: “We are proposing a new agreement, including a ban on deploying strategic offensive weapons beyond national borders. And a ban on the militarization of outer space, of course.”

Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin (retired), former chief of staff for the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN), told us that this refers to extending START I requirements for a ban on deploying strategic offensive weapons outside national territories.

According to Yesin, Moscow and Washington could reach agreement on missile defense as well. To achieve this, the Americans should revive the proposals made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in October 2007: allowing the Russian military access to missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, to monitor the radar and the anti-missiles. But the chief condition would be for the Americans to make a legally binding commitment to restrict the capabilities of their missile defense facilities in Europe: there should be a maximum of ten anti-missiles in Europe, and only one radar in the Czech Republic.

If this is done, says Yesin, Russia would also make a commitment to refrain from deplying Iskander missile systems in the Kaliningrad region. Yesin notes that Moscow might not even need to insist on having Russian observers permanently present at the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Occasional monitoring would suffice, with unrestricted access to the basis at any time. In the intervals between inspections, the situation could be monitored via video cameras.

The experts we approached for comments are positive about Moscow and Washington showing readiness to negotiate an extension of arms control after START I expires. But the “deeper” cuts to nuclear arsenals, as mentioned by Biden, would have to wait until Moscow and Washington resolve their differences on missile defense.

Viktor Yesin says: “If nuclear arsenals are reduced to a thousand warheads per side, it would be necessary to specify restrictions on strategic missile defense. Unless this is done, there could be an imbalance in favor of the USA. In order to prevent that, we have to get the Americans to make a commitment to restrict the capabilities of their missile defense system.” Yesin also noted the need for tighter restrictions on naval cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.

Can the USA and Russia set aside their acute differences on other issues in order to work together on reducing the nuclear threat, countering potential missile threats from the Middle East, and countering terrorism in Afghanistan? In particular, what should Moscow and Washington do about their different views on the former Soviet Union – especially Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asian states? These problems have been a major irritant in US-Russian relations.

According to Biden, the USA won’t agree with Russia on everything. For instance, it doesn’t recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or the existence of “Moscow’s spheres of influence.” While Biden’s mention of the young Transcaucasus republics sounded like a nod to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (present at the Munich conference), the “spheres of influence” remark reflected Washington’s displeasure with developments in Kyrgyzstan. Of course, the Americans are also displeased by Moscow’s attempts to influence Ukraine by means of energy resources.

However, Biden didn’t say a word about Ukraine or Georgia; neither did he mention NATO’s eastward expansion. Alexander Pikayev, department head at IMEMO (Russian Academy of Sciences), told us that Biden’s speech seemed “quite concilatory,” on the whole. According to Pikayev, it’s revealing to note that Saakashvili wasn’t allowed to speak at the Munich conference, although he attended it. Pikayev said: “Presidents are usually allowed to speak. But the conference organizers let it be understood that it’s time for reconciliation, and aggressive rhetoric is not welcome.”

Previous articleTOP 100