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US-Russia differences

February 03, 2012

WHENEVER a nasty incident erupts, there is always a deeper cause beneath the apparently immediate one. The cold shoulder which the new US ambassador to Russia Michael A. McFaul received, shortly after his arrival on Jan 14, reflected a deeper hurt.

He was one of President Obama’s close advisers and one of the co-authors of his policy to ‘reset’ relations with Russia which had languished in the Bush era.

A columnist in Iznestia remarked, on his second day at work, that his appointment signalled a return to the 18th century when “an ambassador’s participation in intrigues and court conspiracies was ordinary business”. The provocation was his meeting on the first day with a number of opposition figures at the American embassy in company with the visiting US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns.

Neither the ambassador’s fluency in Russian nor his authorship of a book entitled Russia’s Unfinished Revolution helped. A TV commentator asked “Is it possible that Mr McFaul came to Russia to work on his specialty? That is, to finish the revolution”. The truth is that the ‘reset’ announced in February 2009, soon after Obama took office, came apart despite many a meeting at the highest levels. The trust deficit remains undiminished. The accords signed in recent years have accomplished little. In 1997 Russia and Nato signed a Nato-Russia Foundation Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security. The Rome Declaration established a Nato-Russia Council in 2002.

A Russian commentator summed up the grievance. Nato continued to treat Russia as a threat, if no longer an outright enemy. It granted membership to not only former Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union but also the ex-Soviet Baltic states, breaking its promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that it would not expand beyond the Cold War borders. It again breached its word to president Boris Yeltsin that it would desist from deploying military forces on the territory of its new members.

Nato endorsed president George W. Bush’s plan to set up missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic that could target Russian strategic arsenals. America’s European allies joined Washington in sponsoring ‘colour revolutions’ in the former Soviet Union under the guise of promoting freedom and democracy. Russia saw these policies as aimed at isolating, encircling and weakening it.

The reset in 2009 did no more than revive the dialogue. Hopes expressed at Nato’s summit at Lisbon, on Feb 19-20, 2010, that Russia might become a partner in the missile defence system, which was meant to protect Europe from a nuclear-armed ‘rogue’ state, (i.e. Iran) were as unreal as fears of the threat itself.

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Nov 11, 2011 that Russia’s ambassador to Nato Dmitry Rogozin had been told by an American senator that the missile defence system had been aimed to blunt the effectiveness of Russia’s nuclear weapons. They were not aimed solely at irrational states with a handful of weapons yet to be acquired.

President Obama’s meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev at Honolulu in November 2011 failed. Obama refused to give a formal assurance that the Nato system could not be used against Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, in reality, a formal guarantee by the US of non-aggression.

Soon after the announcement of the ‘reset’ in 2009, Obama had promised to overhaul the plans for stationing anti-ballistic missiles. Just before the Honolulu summit, the US administration had announced that the US would base Aegis cruises on the Spanish coast. This was denounced in a statement by Russia’s foreign ministry. Russia had not been consulted on what was “a significant build-up of US missile potential in the European Zone”.

Failure of the Obama-Medvedev summit at Honolulu therefore surprised nobody. What Medvedev sought was a treaty to set up a new security architecture comprising the US, Europe and Russia, so that Russia acquired a voice in decision-making on Nato’s expansion and military intervention.

This was, in effect, revival of Moscow’s quest for parity with the US which it pursued relentlessly after the end of the Second World War. The US never accepted Moscow’s claim to parity even when the Soviet Union was a superpower. It is this attitude which irks and lies at the root of Russia-American differences. The latest proposal was given short shift by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We believe that the best way to achieve this [security] is by reinforcing the pillars that have supported European security for decades, not by negotiating new treaties, as Russia has suggested.”

Sheer desperation marked President Medvedev’s outburst on Nov 23 last year. He announced a sweeping package of retaliatory measures if the US went ahead with its missile defence plans, ranging from targeting US missile defence sites in Europe and deploying new long-range nuclear missiles capable of piercing US defences to tearing up the Russian-US START pact and walking out of the arms control and disarmament process.

START signed in 2010 was the most tangible achievement of the Russian-American ‘reset’ the two countries embarked upon. Medvedev said Russia remained open to dialogue with the US and Nato on missile defence issues.

As Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, noted “the Russians have concluded that they have nothing to expect from Obama on arms issues in the remainder of his term”. On any major issue, would be a more accurate assessment. For, 2012 is election year in the US as well as in Russia which holds its parliamentary elections next month. Both countries are locked in rivalry in Central Asia as well as in the East with China as an interested party with its own interests to pursue. The US can ill afford to ignore the two in any settlement of the Afghan problem, or the crisis with Iran.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.