Obama’s Lost Opportunity


The beginning of the Obama administration since January 2009 has been seen as a period marking the reset of U.S. policies with Russia. During the George W. Bush era the relations between the U.S. and Russia were not cordial when the then Russian president Putin did not have very good working relationship with his counterpart in Washington. President Obama had promised that he would put in efforts to restore the American-Russian relations to the level of Reagan-Gorbachev time.

The first meeting between president Obama and president Medvedev took place in London in April 2009 during the G20 summit when the leaders of developed and emerging economies assembled to discuss measures to deal with global economic crisis. Both these leaders utilized that opportunity to restart the stalled arms control negotiations aimed at slashing their nuclear weapons. They agreed in principle to instruct their officials to resume discussion to produce a successor treaty to Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)-1. That cold war nuclear arms control agreement had been signed in 1991 and was  expiring in December 2009. In view of importance of START-1 dealing with the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons of the U.S. and Russia, the possessors of the largest nuclear arsenals, it was significant that a new treaty on the subject should be in place.

President Obama’s push for renegotiating the 1991 START was motivated by his vision of a world with no nuclear weapons, which he had announced in June 2009 in Prague. He therefore was effortful to ensure that the bilateral talks should conclude successfully on producing a successor treaty before START-1 expired. During such bilateral negotiation the issue of antimissile defense which the U.S. had planned to locate in Eastern Europe to safeguard its NATO allies had emerged and Russia had objected because of its security concerns. When this objection was seemingly looking to block the conclusion of a New START, the American side assured the Russian that they would respect the latter’s objections in follow up discussion after the signing of the treaty.

With persistent personal involvement of president Obama at times the New START was finally signed by leaders of U.S and Russia in June 2010, however, the dispute over the deployment of antimissile defense  system has remained unsettled even after the U.S. Senate ratification of the agreement. Obama’s pledge before the Senate that he would pursue fully the deployment of antimissile system regardless of Russia’s actions has disappointed the Kremlin leaders. The detailing of such intentions of the U.S. administration in the resolution adopted by the Senate while ratifying the treaty has made the Russians more suspicious about Obama’s true intentions.

In the wake of U.S. Senate ratification of New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between America and Russia, the issue of planned missile defense in East Europe has become another source of discordance. This disagreement is apparantly impacting the early implementation of above treaty that intends to slash about one third of existing strategic nuclear weapons of U.S. and Russia. The conclusion of New START has been hailed as a great achievement in revamping the U.S.-Russia relations, however, the anti missile system dispute, if not resolved quickly, may present a challenge to president Obama’s reset policy with Russia.

In post-Soviet Russia the Americans are now viewed with increasing suspicion despite Obama administration’s pronounced policy of reengagement with Russia. There are understandable reasons for this skepticism. Two incidents, among others, predominantly influence the Russian perception about  the Americans. These are U.S. policies concerning the location of missile defense sites to the vicinity of Russian borders and continuing eastward expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Stephen F. Cohen, through his book, “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War”, argues that missile defense is a time bomb embedded in the New START treaty”. When negotiations were conducted in 2009-10 to produce New START treaty Moscow believed that president Obama had agreed to honor the Russian objections to stationing antimissiles sites in Eastern Europe. But the Russians were astonished to find Obama personally promising to the U.S. Senate during ratification of the above treaty that the agreement places no limitations on the development and deployment of American missile defense programs.

At a time when president Obama needs Russian cooperation to pursue bilateral arms control agreements particularly on short-range tactical nuclear weapons where Russia has an edge, the dispute on missile defense system may sabotage his future plans. In November 2010 before the U.S. Senate ratified New START treaty the Russian President Medvedev announced that his country might participate in a NATO version of missile defense project.  Both the Russian president and prime minister have also emphasized that, “They will participate only on an absolutely equal basis or not participate at all”.

On May 18 Medvedev ominously said, “Unless the missile defense conflict is resolved, there will be another escalation of the arms race that would throw us back into the Cold War”. Stephen Sestanovich notes that the Russians are wary of anything that sounds like the Regan administration’s “Star War” defense, which was designed to neutralize Russian nuclear deterrence. Despite U.S. clarification that anti missile defense does not impact the Russian deterrence, they ask the Americans what will happen if ten years from now the U.S. decides to go further on the disputed project.

NATO’s eastward expansion has institutionalized a new and even larger geopolitical conflict with Russia as opined by Stephen F. Cohen. He further contends that “today Russia’s bilateral relationship with Beijing and Berlin are already more important politically, economically and even militarily than its barren relations with a Washington that for two decades has seemed chronically unreliable and even duplicitious”. The Russians may perceive such U.S. policy being influenced by their conclusion that post-Soviet Russia is weakened considerably. Demilitarizing NATO’s expansion in the east would recognize that Moscow is entitled to at least one strategic interest which means the absence of a potential military threat on its borders. America’s reset policy with Russia will be in jeopardy unless latter’s concerns are properly addressed.

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