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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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?