So, there’s an agreement on nuclear weapons cuts. Is that such a step of major importance today, when the once-terrifying prospect of all-out nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States is of far less concern in the public mind (and rightly so, I think) than a stray North Korean or Iranian missile? Since the fall of Communism, disarmament has become a ritualistic ballet that mainly flatters the Russian ego because it makes Russia feel like a fellow superpower. (The cuts benefit Russia in other ways as well; its nuclear arsenal is badly in need of an upgrade, and the country can ill afford a new arms race.) Has Obama agreed to link stratetgic arms reductions to the issue of missile shield installations in Eastern Europe? Obama says no (and his chief Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, says no even more emphatically); Medvedev seems to think he has, because discussions of “defensive weapons” are to be included in the talks. There’s also a statement about “cooperation” on missile defense. Whether any of this is meaningful remains to be seen. Russian policy expert Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center writes that the way out of the impasse is for the U.S. to agree to a joint missile defense with Russia, a decicion from which Trenin says “the U.S. has little to lose” even if it ultimately doesn’t work out. The problem is that, as Trenin admits, Moscow does not want a joint ABM defense system if the U.S. also proceeds with missile shield installations in Eastern Europe. Dead end.
There is a deal to allow the transit of U.S. weapons and military personnel across Russian territory (and airspace) to Afghanistan to help the U.S. and NATO military effort there. As Russian military analyst Alexander Golts notes (Russian-language link), “While Moscow presented this as a concession, in reality it is obvious that the Americans’ war effort in Afghanistan ensures Russia’s security.” Golts believes that this deal was the only useful part of the Obama-Medvedev talks, otherwise no more meaningful than (in his colorful metaphor) the chatter of extras on a movie set who must maintain the background noise of conversation.
There was, however, an interesting reference to Georgia.
In Obama’s words at the press conference with Medvedev:
[W]e had a frank discussion on Russia — on Georgia, and I reiterated my firm belief that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. Yet even as we work through our disagreements on Georgia’s borders, we do agree that no one has an interest in renewed military conflict. And going forward, we must speak candidly to resolve these differences peacefully and constructively.
What, you might ask, are those bolded words? They are the words that were lost in translation, as it were, in the Russian-language press conference transcript posted on the Kremlin’s website (as Andrei Piontkovsky reports). The Kremlin, in other words, touched up Obama’s comments both to soften the wording and to remove the reference to the possibility of a new war.
So far, Obama seems to be sending the right signal. He also deftly sidestepped the inevitable “who’s really in charge, Medvedev or Putin” question. His assertion that President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin “allocate power in accordance with Russia’s form of government, in the same way we allocate power in the United States” may have been a “did he really say that with a straight face” moment (Medvedev reportedly rolled his eyes), but what else was he supposed to say? He did say this:
My interest is in dealing directly with my counterpart, the president, but also reach out to Prime Minister Putin and all other influential sectors in Russian society so that I can get a full picture of the needs of the Russian people and the concerns of the Russian people.
Interesting that Obama’s comments about his breakfast with Putin relegate the PM to one of many “influential sectors in Russian society” to which he is “reaching out.” Definitely the right note.