Five priority issues in Russian-American talks

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week. Their talks will focus on five issues set out in letters exchanged by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev: arms control, Afghanistan, Iran, a new European security architecture, and the global economic crisis.

The new US administration is completing its introductions to the rest of the world with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s second tour, starting February 28. The introductions started with Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Munich, and continued with Clinton’s tour of Asia. And now Clinton is effectively concluding the ritual round of visits to the world’s most important capitals by going to Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Turkey, as well as meeting with NATO officials in Brussels. Russia is the only country of importance to the USA which Clinton isn’t visiting. Her meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will take place on neutral territory – in Switzerland.

In effect, the Clinton-Lavrov meeting in Geneva will be the first time this year that Russia and the USA have held high-level talks. As Deputy Secretary of State Daniel Fried noted, the Kremlin and the White House have only exchanged phone calls and letters; presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev have spoken several times and sent one letter each.

A source close to the White House told us that the letters exchanged by Obama and Medvedev will make up the plan for the upcoming Russian-American talks. The letters raised only five key issues: arms control, Afghanistan, Iran, a new European security architecture, and the global economic crisis.

The issue of non-proliferation and disarmament is in the foreground, as usual, since the two sides have no disagreements on principle there.

Both Moscow and Washington believe that they need to work out a new treaty by the end of this year to replace START I, which expires in December. The only apprehension on this point is that it might not be possible to complete negotiations in time. It’s been a while since Russia and the USA talked about disarmament, so many of the specialists with experience in these matters have moved out of government service, and the new people will need time to get a grasp of the issues. In Washington this shortage of personnel isn’t so apparent, since Clinton administration veterans are returning; but the situation is more difficult in moscow. Thus, despite optimistic forecasts from both sides, our sources believe it isn’t certain that Russia and the USA will be able to complete the process by December.

The second issue, Afghanistan, is just about the most problematic area in Russian-American relations right now. In his letter to Obama, Medvedev said that Russia is prepared to assist in any way it can with cargo transit across Russian territory to Afghanistan. He didn’t mention the American air base at Manas, which the government of Kyrgyzstan has decided to shut down. According to our sources, however, Obama’s letter indicated directly that the USA is indeed counting on Russia’s help – and that includes Moscow refraining from encouraging Kyrgyzstan to expel the Americans from Manas. There has been no reaction to this; despite numerous statements from the Pentagon about continuing negotiations with Kyrgyzstan, the government in Bishkek still insists that it intends to close the base.

Bishkek’s recalcitrance and Moscow’s attempt to pretend that it had nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan’s decision are clearly annoying the new US administration. This is evident from Daniel Fried’s comments on Russian-American relations. Speaking at a State Department press briefing, he suddenly decided to add some interpretations of Vice President Biden’s speech in Munich. Fried noted that everyone has been paying too much attention to what Biden said about “pressing the reset button” in relations with Russia, while overlooking his comment that the USA doesn’t recognize the existence of any Russian spheres of interests. Fried stressed that this reflects the views of the new American administration.

Negotiations with Iran may be Obama’s most ambitious project: this is not named as a foreign policy priority yet, but only because of uncertainty about the project’s success. Last week, Obama appointed experienced diplomat Denis Ross as Hillary Clinton’s assistant for Iran; he will have to negotiate with Tehran and persuade it to take a few steps toward the West. Washington really needs Russia’s help here. According to our sources, Obama made a sensational proposal in his letter to Medvedev: saying that solving the Iran problem would completely eliminate any reason to deploy missile defense elements in Europe, so if Moscow and Washington form a united front in negotiations with Iran, the USA could forget about the missile defense elements. Washington has not received a response to this proposal as yet, and the Clinton-Lavrov meeting is unlikely to clarify the situation. Hopes are focused on upcoming Medvedev-Obama meetings. Medvedev has already invited Obama to visit Moscow. Obama agreed, but no specific date has been set as yet. A date will probably be finalized when Clinton and Lavrov meet this week and announced on April 2 in London, when Medvedev and Obama have their first face-to-face meeting.

President Medvedev’s proposal for a new European security architechture is usually on the agenda for international talks. However, Russia’s proposals are still vague, so no specific discussions should be expected in the immediate future.

Clinton and Lavrov will also discuss the Mideast situation; they will meet for the first time today at a session of the Middle East Quartet and an international conference on rebuilding Gaza. They will be able to continue their conversation in Geneva on March 6. However, Clinton will also have to talk about Russia in the absence of her counterpart; the day before meeting with him, she will discuss Russia-NATO relations with NATO foreign affairs ministers – and after the Geneva talks she will go to Turkey. Her talks in Ankara will focus on cooperation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the future of the Nabucco gas pipeline.