Obama, Russia, and the Reset Button

President Obama is headed to Moscow in early July for his first ever U.S.-Russia summit. The administration, in an effort to "hit the reset button" when it comes to relations between the two countries, has in fact hit the delete button when it comes to ties with friends and allies in the region.

First, there was the news from the NATO defense ministers meeting this past week that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had told his counterpart from Poland, Bogdan Klich, that the Patriot air-defense battery promised to Poland last August as part of a broader agreement to increase strategic cooperation between the two countries would be rotated in and out of Poland and used exclusively for training purposes. As such, he added, there would be no need for the missiles to be live and armed. The agreement to locate a Patriot battery in Poland was of course a late Bush administration effort to reassure Poland of U.S. interest in the country's security in light of the Russian invasion of Georgia; it was also a response to Russian threats against Poland for the possible deployment of ground-based missile interceptors in Polish territory--part of the U.S.-led missile defense program aimed at addressing the missile threat from Iran. Now, for all of Warsaw's efforts to be a solid, dependable U.S. ally--which have included sending troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan--Poland is receiving promises of U.S. troops occasionally setting up shop with the military version of "potted plants" on its
territory.

Both the decision to slow roll the Poles and ignore Moscow's behavior in Georgia is part and parcel of an Obama administration's effort to prevent anything from getting in the way of a U.S.-Russia agreement on reducing strategic nuclear arsenals.

Then, on Monday, Russia halted efforts at the UN to extend the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), following on the heels of its veto of the continuation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission to South Ossetia, one of the two now Russian-occupied Georgian territories invaded in August 2008. With typical Russian subtly, the Russian foreign ministry noted that "extension [of the UNOMIG mandate] makes no sense because it is predicated on old realities." Well, yeah, that is certainly true since, in effect, Moscow has now effectively annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia into its orbit with barely a peep from the new U.S. team and seemingly with no consequences for relations whatsoever.

Both the decision to slow roll the Poles and ignore Moscow's behavior in Georgia is part and parcel of an Obama administration's effort to prevent anything from getting in the way of a U.S.-Russia agreement on reducing strategic nuclear arsenals. Whether appeasing Russian behavior is likely to make negotiating an agreement any easier is a doubtful assumption when it comes to Moscow these days, however. Nor is it obvious that an agreement on cutting strategic force levels will have much, if any, salutary impact on geo-political realities. Force levels have already been slashed since the end of the Cold War--from over 12,000 warheads in the early 1980s to some 2,200 today--and further reductions are not likely to make the world appreciably safer. If anything, deep cuts now will put in jeopardy the United States' ability to maintain its strategic triad of submarines, bombers, and missiles. How that will enhance strategic stability is anybody's guess. And, finally, the other justification for the agreement is the supposed impact it would have on strengthening the non-proliferation regime. But the reality is, there is no evidence that the size of U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals has any impact at all on the decision by the likes of North Korea and Iran to pursue or expand their nuclear weapons programs. What matters to them is the deterrent value of having such weapons in light of American and allied conventional military superiority. So, unless the Obama administration's next move is to radically reduce our military footprint around the globe and toss aside our various security commitments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, reducing the number of nuclear warheads we have on hand is not likely to make a scintilla of difference when it comes to the problem of proliferation.

All of which is to say, in the Obama team's rush to get a new arms control agreement--which, by the way, is being done before the congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review and Nuclear Posture Review have been completed--they have pushed aside concerns about Russian revanchist policies. This could be justified of course if the benefits to be gained were worth the price of ignoring the damage being done to American credibility in Russia's "near abroad." But they're not. All Obama will really get after an agreement is reached is a platform for more moral preening on the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons and a Moscow more likely to think that the United States and Europe have acceded to its claims regarding a "sphere of influence" in the post-Soviet space. This is a potentially high price, indeed.

Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI.

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