At UN, few signs of Russia warming to Obama, but nuclear cooperation may improve

Russian President Medvedev made few new concessions in response to the canceling of Russia's Eastern European missile-shield plan. But new ways to cooperate on threats like Iran's nuclear program and instability in Afghanistan are emerging.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and President Barack Obama speak during their meeting in New York on Wednesday.
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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may have just been handed major US concessions on top of international priorities, but there were few signs of reciprocity in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly or in his brief tête-à-tête with Barack Obama on Wednesday.

In fact, it's hard to see how Mr. Medvedev's words and actions in New York yesterday would have been much different if the US had stuck to its plan to install antimissile defenses in Eastern Europe last week, or if NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union were still on the table. Both the missile defense system and NATO plans (apparently) were shelved. Last week, NATO's new Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called instead for a new era of cooperation between the Western military alliance and Russia, which ought to have been music to Moscow's ears.

But while Medvedev provided little in the way of new concessions in return for these diplomatic gains, analysts say the groundwork has in fact been laid for closer cooperation between Russia and the US. Medvedev welcomed the missile defense change as a "constructive step in the right direction" and suggested that Russia might be amenable to supporting tough sanctions against Iran.

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To be sure, Russian officials struck some sour notes this week, with one of their diplomats suggesting that Washington's cancellation of the planned antimissile deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic was not a genuine concession to Moscow, but instead more evidence that the US does not understand Russia.

"It shows to us that the US continues to be a rather difficult negotiating partner, a partner who is loaded in many ways by a cold-war mentality," Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin told journalists this week. "By doing that they are undermining the value of the decision in our eyes."

Russian game changers

However, some Russian experts say that while there's been no dramatic change in US-Russian relations, the ground is slowly shifting. They argue that practical opportunities are now opening up that could be game changers.

"You need to look at the long term, and not be obsessed with the minor day-to-day quarrels that go on," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow, who has been a regular participant in a group of experts (headed by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and ex-Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov) that's been quietly trying to map out a route to a strategic partnership for the past two years.

"We see a big and dangerous gap between the potential for cooperation between Moscow and Washington, and the reality," he says. "The problem is to bridge that gap, by doing things jointly, in ways that increase mutual confidence and improve the atmosphere."

For instance, Russia and the US disagree about the threat that Iran's nuclear project poses to the world, but they also agree on the need to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime to enable countries to gain access to civilian atomic technology while blocking attempts at weaponization.

Russian experts say Medvedev and Mr. Obama are closer than ever to finding a joint approach and that Russia may now for the first time be prepared to back a tough program of sanctions against Iran if it refuses to go along.

"Now we may be able to find a compromise," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma's foreign affairs committee. "After all, Russia doesn't want to see more countries with nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile capabilities near our borders. But we need to protect our national interests, too; we're not just going to become pawns in someone else's agenda."

On missile defense the Kremlin argued long and hard against the Bush-era plan, largely on the grounds that it might one day threaten Russia's aging strategic deterrent. But now that Obama has shifted the emphasis to tactical defenses, which would focus on specific danger points such as Iran and North Korea, the basic picture is different.

Joint threats

"Now we can have a joint threat assessment and pool our resources to counter those potential threats," says Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a Moscow think tank. "If we don't see a strategic challenge in it, that makes a lot of difference. Russia could contribute a lot to a common defense against rogue launches: we have technology, territorial expanse, and other resources to offer."

On Afghanistan, Russia has already dropped its objections to a US air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan and is enabling a transport corridor through former Soviet territory to resupply the NATO mission. But Moscow has also been eyeing greater involvement in the turbulent central Asian country, which it occupied unsuccessfully in the 1980s, for some time.

"There's a good deal more that Russia and its local allies can do to help the NATO operation in Afghanistan, short of sending in troops, and that seems much more likely now," says Mr. Suslov. "This sort of cooperation is also a major confidence-booster."

With strategic missile defense off the table for the time being it also seems likely that the US and Russia may finalize a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires in December.

"The work is under way," Medvedev told journalists Wednesday. "A good start allowed us to hope that our teams will cope and in due time we will have a document."

If real cooperation can take off in just a few practical areas, the entire forecast on US-Russian relations could change from cloudy to sunshine, says Mr. Kremeniuk.

"There is a real chance to change the paradigm, but it needs to be done by looking beyond the short-term quarrels and building on points of agreement," he says. "There are enduring differences, to be sure, but there's no shortage of opportunities for cooperation."

Is Russia now the key to helping the Obama administration contain Iran's nuclear program?

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