An update on the meeting of the Russian and US presidents in London and expert comments.

As far as Russia is concerned, key event of the G20 summit in London happened on April 1 when presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama announced a "fresh start" in the bilateral relations. Let us hope that scenario of another honeymoon in the relations between Moscow and Washington will be different from the usual delight/the Kremlin’s unilateral concessions/mutual accusations three-phase pattern.

To make something of this fresh start, we should become like the Americans – hard-headed pragmatics without illusions. “Don’t be naive,” a prominent US politician told journalists after the meeting of the two presidents. “We do not plan to agree with each other wherever we lack common concerns. Anyway, we will try to avoid the problems fomented by the mutual lack of understanding.” It will make a great slogan, something Russian diplomats should adopt.

Give as little as possible and get as much as you can – stripped of fancy phraseology, this is what the international politics is about. Russia has what the Americans want. Obama’s foreign policy is centered around fear of nuclear terrorism and uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is one of the extremely rare issues where interests of Moscow and Washington do coincide. This is why, by the way, it is technicians and military experts rather than politicians who should be central figures in the Russian-US nuclear arms talks.

The Yankees are going to make an emphasis on high-flown rhetorics and high ideals in contacts with the Kremlin. An official from Washington, someone fairly close to the US Administration, earnestly told Moskovsky Komsomolets that interests of the world demanded a maximum reduction of nuclear arsenals or, even better, their complete elimination (something about his whole bearing was suspiciously messianic, and so was something in his eyes). Granted that the idea is definitely alluring, it is impossible at best and dangerous at worst.

Neoconservatives from George W. Bush’s Administration pursued a policy based on a thoroughly distorted picture of the world. There are spheres where interests of Russia and the United States will never jibe indeed. A look into the day after tomorrow, however, shows that interests of Moscow and Washington are not as diametrically polar as one might think.

China, a rapidly developing colossus, has benefited enormously from the Russian-American discord. Moreover, Beijing is smart enough to abstain from any dramatic gestures. Will it always remain as polite with regard to Russia as it has been so far? There is no way to say anything definitely. And what about Iran when it no longer needs the Russian nuclear know-how? Or consider Pakistan, the country balancing on the brink. What if it loses balance and starts exporting both Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear missiles?

Bush’s policy resulted in a situation where petty rulers like Mikhail Saakashvili mastered the art of “divide and rule” in the relations with Russia and the United States. If they want this manipulation in the past, Russia and the West had better work out some framework principles of the geopolitical game in Eurasia. Moreover, the impression is that it is Russia’s move now.

Obama does not mind the system based on the endlessly expanding NATO. It will take more than a firm “No” to slow down and stop the “North Atlantic bulldozer”. Some alternative will have to be suggested. Either Russia comes up with one, or the Yankees will make a fool of it again. And why not? Losers can be dismissed and left out of calculations and considerations. And they usually are, for that matter.

Expert comments

Rogov: The presidents certainly lived up to the expectations. Russia and the United States were on the brink of another Cold War just six months ago. All serious diplomatic contacts were severed last autumn. Screams to “punish”, “isolate”, and put into motion “containment strategy” were all we could hear from the United States. Everything changed with Obama’s election. The meeting in London is more than just another positive signal. It is bona fide progress.

Medvedev and Obama proclaimed readiness to sign a new strategic arms treaty by the end of the year. That’s an important decision indeed because the arms control regime is on the verge of collapse. Washington withdrew from the ABM treaty, the START II treaty never came into force, and the Russian moratorium put the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty on hold. With the START I treaty expiring this December, what we will be left with is complete vacuum. Collapse of the arms control framework coupled with the global crisis may foment a reckless arms race and general chaos.

Presidents instructed negotiators to come up with something worthwhile for the new meeting scheduled for July. It will be a fully fledged summit. That Obama accepted an invitation to come to Moscow is in itself important.

No terms or clauses of the future treaty have been worked out yet. Things like that take time. Moreover, it is not what presidents are for. What counts meanwhile is the agreement to make the level of nuclear arms below what was permitted by the document Putin and Bush signed. The Putin and Bush agreement is next to impossible to abide by in the first place. It permits every signatory 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads without giving a definition of what a “deployed warhead” is. The START I treaty envisaged clear methods of nuclear arsenal evaluation and control and verification mechanisms. The future document will need verification mechanisms. Moreover, it should apply to both warheads and delivery mans. Also importantly, Medvedev and Obama acknowledged a connection between defensive and strategic offensive weapons. It’s important because the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty and launched development of the ballistic missile defense system.

The agreements made in London do promote interests of Russia. The United States has the ability to double its offensive potential and develop a missile shield all at the same time. It foments a danger of America’s absolute military superiority over Russia.

Negotiations will be difficult, nobody questions that. Still, the fact that the presidents want ideas for the July meeting enables us to hope that some framework START agreement will be signed at the summit and a full international treaty by December. I reckon that it will permit signatories 1,500 warheads each.

Development of economic relations was discussed as well, an issue of unquestionable importance in time of crisis. The United States reiterated its support of WTO membership for Russia. Not that we should count on a direct economic effect of course, because the scope of the Russian-American trade amounts to only about one fifteenth of the US-Chinese. Anyway, there is a chance that the discriminating Jackson-Vanick amendment will finally be abolished this year.

I expect some intensive Russian-American negotiations now. Formation of Obama’s Administration is taking somewhat longer than expected, and that goes for the part of it that will be responsible for relations with Russia. All the same, I suspect that the team of US negotiators will be formed within weeks now.

As we know, that presidents know each other is no guarantee of warmth in the bilateral relations between their countries. It’s nice that both Medvedev and Obama want new mechanisms that will stabilize the Russian-American relations. Sure, some discord will remain, including disagreement over NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia or over missile shield in East Europe. All the same, I think that Obama’s Administration will be able to table these matters for the time being. And if we do succeed in developing wholly new bilateral relations, it may alter all of the strategic situation. So, I do not think that Georgia and Ukraine will be embraced in NATO as full members or that US killer missiles will appear in Poland in the near future. Anyway, the Russian-American rivalry in the Commonwealth will continue. Sure, it looked like dirty pool of late, but this is our chance to remedy that and make rivalry more civilized.

Rahr: Russian and US presidents have no time to size each other up or familiarize themselves with each other. We live in a period when threats posed by the financial crisis are considerably worse than the threat of terrorism the world was facing when Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush first met or than challenges of the post-Cold War period had been when Boris Yeltsin met George Bush. It’s time to act now. Both presidents want to cooperate. The impression is that Obama understood that he needs Russia and China more than he does Europe. It was an important gesture when Obama met with the heads of Russia and China in London before meeting with European leaders. That he intends to visit Russia and China before long is another telling nuance. America understands that world problems have no solutions without Russia and China.

Will the Russian and US elites, enemies over the last three years almost as bitter as they were during the Cold War, change their attitude now? If Medvedev really stands for rapprochement with the United States, he should send this signal to the Russian elite. Obama in his turn should rid the US establishment, and first and foremost neoconservatives, of these vestiges of Cold War mentality. If they succeed, then it will be genuine rebooting and a breakthrough. If they fail, everything will continue as before.

As far as I can judge, the ABM issue just might be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Obama suggests cooperation. Of course, nobody expects anyone to open all cards at once. There are some signals meanwhile indicating that the Americans would like to return to the idea once proposed by Putin – that of the joint use of the radar in the southern part of the Caucasus instead of development of elements of the missile shield in Europe. By the way, Washington catastrophically lacks money for development of ABM system objects in the Czech Republic and Poland. Obama would like to drop the whole matter, but it might be taken for a sign of weakness and he will lose face. That’s why he is compelled to drive a bargain with Russia, bartering ABM for aid with Iran.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama is ready for cooperation with Russia. As for strategic arms reduction, we live in a world different from what it was when the United States and Soviet Union had each other in their sights and counted their nuclear potentials…

There are other players now – China, India, Pakistan. Even should Russia and the United States decide that they want nuclear potentials downsized, Russia should always remember that there are other nuclear powers in the world. Why Russia? Because it lives next door to China. Because it has the problem of Islamic fundamentalism to be wary of… Russian diplomacy had better remember it.