Naval War College professor Nick Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the Atlantic Council, argued in advance of the trip that “Despite all the promises about a ‘reset’ in the U.S.-Russia relationship, the Obama administration still seems to be following a script crafted by its predecessor” but predicted that the visit would be “symbolically triumphal.”  He appears right on both counts.

Spiegel‘s Benjamin Bidder thought it was beautifully stage managed.

Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was technically the host, it was his US counterpart, Barack Obama, who appeared to be stage-managing the show Monday during the meeting between the two heads of state in a lavish Kremlin hall. The US president — who, as usual, knew that not just America but the whole world was listening to his words — was intentionally subdued. Obama spoke with concentration, sounding serious, and was always careful to make sure that his presence did not overshadow the somewhat tense-seeming Medvedev.


Nothing hurts Russia these days more than the loss of its superpower status. Obama has understood the need to address this patriotic longing felt by a majority of Russians, and is caressing the Russian soul with his overtures. Although he is still convinced that the planned US missile shield system with its installations in Poland and the Czech Republic can provide little defense against Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Obama shows understanding for Russian opposition to the scheme. Obama said Monday that Medvedev had told him he was “very concerned” about the missile shield and raised the prospect of working with the Russians to find a solution — even if an agreement would take time. Medvedev in turn welcomed the fact that the US was now listening to the Russian view that defensive weapons systems also need to be taken into account when it comes to maintaining balance in the international system.

At the end of the first day of Obama’s visit, it was clear how much the US side is making efforts to strengthen the position of the Russian president.

Former Republican speechwriter Christian Brose, writing at FP’s Shadow Government blog, thinks very little happened.

I’m all for “de-linkage” in U.S.-Russia relations — working together where our interests converge, agreeing to disagree where our interests conflict, and preventing those disagreements from impeding constructive cooperation. In short, what Bush and Putin spelled out last April in Sochi.

That said, let’s be honest about what that means for our interests: It means that Obama has just invested a lot of time and effort to secure an agreement to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles to a level that could still annihilate the world several times over. This may be an achievable goal, but it is hardly a pressing one — not when Iran is speeding toward a weapon of its own, and the United States and Russia cannot seem to find much agreement on how to proceed on that.

Professor Keith Payne, adopting his recent Congressional testimony for WSJ, argues that agreeing to reduce our nuclear arsenal is a mistake because “the number of deployed Russian strategic ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers will drop dramatically simply as a result of their aging. In other words, a large number of Russian launchers will be removed from service with or without a new arms-control agreement.”  He cites the commander of Russian forces as admitting “not a single Russian launcher” with “remaining service life” will be withdrawn under a new agreement. Frank Gaffney goes even further, saying cutting the American arsenal is tantamount to undermining the deterrent that “has kept you, or someone you love, from having to fight and possibly die in the kind of global cataclysm using non-nuclear (or “conventional”) weapons that engulfed our countrymen and untold millions of others twice in the last century, before the dawn of the nuclear age.”

Payne is almost certainly right that the cut in Russia’s forces is symbolic.  But Gaffney is in a distinct minority who believe that the United States requires anything near its current warhead levels to deter against nuclear attack.

Once we dismiss the nuclear agreement, then, what was achieved?  Not much, really.  Then again, only the most Pollyannish observers of international relations thought much would be achieved.  It’s rare, indeed, for leader level meetings to reach accords that haven’t been hammered out in advance.

Russia is still not going to be of much help in pressuring North Korea or Iran on halting their nuclear programs.

No progress was made in resolving the issue of NATO expansion into Russia’s “near abroad.”

Russia’s annexation of the internationally recognized Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains a fait accompli.

FP’s Joshua Keating says we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the meeting’s accomplishments, however.

Yes, the nukes that the U.S. and Russia will have after the cuts could still “annihilate the world several times over” but surely we have to start somewhere. The greenhouse gas reductions in the currently being debated climate bill probably won’t be enough to offset the worst effects of global warming, but it allows U.S. negotiators to show up in Copenhagen with a legitimate achievement under their belt. Same goes for next year’s Nonproliferation Treaty review conference.

As for the airspace, it’s true that the U.S. probably wants to avoid dependence on Russia’s good will in Afghanistan. But it’s not exactly like there are a lot of great options in the region of Afghanistan. Given that the U.S. is already working with such reliable partners as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, it certainly seems prudent to look for other options.

Additionally, as John Kruzel reports for American Forces Press Service, the leaders “agreed to resume bilateral military cooperation, which has been on hold since the conflict between Russia and Georgia erupted in August.”  He details the many programs impacted by this arrangement.

As an LA Times editorial puts it, Obama and Medvedev “agreed to agree” which, as they note, “is a far greater accomplishment than it might seem, given the sorry state of bilateral relations that the two leaders inherited and the high costs of discord.”

Ultimately, then, the two men practiced classic Realpolitik, foregoing public talks about irreconcilable differences while striving to make some advances in areas of mutual interest.   That, frankly, falls far short of a “reset” in the relationship that the Obama administration has been touting.  But it is not nothing.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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