Despite forecasts, cold front lingers over US-Russia relations

The two nuclear powers continue to bicker over NATO war games, nuclear weapons, and fighter jets in Kyrgyzstan.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev look on during their meeting ahead of the G20 summit in London on April 1.

It's been less than a month since presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev dramatically pressed the "reset button" in US-Russian relations, symbolically calling a halt to several years of chilly ties.

But the roadblocks are already proliferating.

Three flashing amber lights in the past few days have signaled profound differences between Moscow and Washington, and suggest that warm smiles and handshakes at summit meetings might not be enough to bring the two nations together. Although the emerging problems aren't insurmountable, experts say that they may be a small indication of things to come as Russian and US negotiators attempt to find a common language after several years of shouting past each other.

"I couldn't understand why some observers were recently talking about a 'full reset' of relations between us; that's just asking to be disappointed," says Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policies in Moscow. "I prefer to speak about a pause in the growth of dangerous tendencies. Now, after the honeymoon, we're coming back to hard realities."

Some recent "go slow" signs:

• Moscow this week angrily canceled one of its first scheduled meetings with NATO, just weeks after the Western alliance decided at a summit meeting to resume the dialogue that had been frozen in the wake of Russia's war with neighboring Georgia last summer. The reason, according to Moscow's ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, is the West's refusal to call off "provocative" 19-nation war games to be held in eastern Georgia next month under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace.

"The recent cooling in our relations with NATO exposes clear problems in our dialogue," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a BBC interview Tuesday. "We do not understand this tendency – still there, still not understood by us – to try to downplay the norms of international law [and] the role of the UN Security Council."

• In a speech in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, Mr. Medvedev cautiously dissented from Mr. Obama's resounding goal of building a nuclear weapons-free world, saying that Russia would rather concentrate on solving immediate issues, such as cementing a new strategic-weapons accord with the US, and would put several conditions upon further cooperation with Washington in the crusade to ban nuclear arms.

Those conditions would include, he said, banning weapons in space, major efforts to cut conventional forces, and guarantees that nuclear weapons would be destroyed rather than just stockpiled. He also insisted that cuts in offensive weapons would be pointless if the Obama administration went ahead with Pentagon plans to build a globe-girdling missile-defense shield.

"We are very concerned about the prospects of a unilateral deployment of antimissile systems ... which complicates nuclear disarmament," Medvedev said.

• The ink is barely dry on the Kyrgyz president's decree ordering the US to vacate its airbase at Manas, a vital link in NATO's supply line to Afghanistan. The move is widely believed to have been motivated by the announcement of more than $2 billion in Russian aid to the impoverished central Asian state. This week, the Kremlin also announced that it will beef up Russia's military presence at Kant, including fighter planes, just a few miles from the soon-to-be-defunct US installation.

If it sounds like nothing much has changed from the acrimonious Bush years, experts say that's because, well, nothing much has actually changed. At least not yet.

"We're at the beginning of a long and difficult process, and we shall have to navigate many obstacles along the way," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee. "Lots of people on both sides are still sunk in a cold war mentality."

Mr. Klimov says that each of the recent glitches suggests opportunities for progress, as long as both sides recognize the other's interests. "We must have better understanding, which means we must speak frankly," he says. "We need to develop the conversation."

Take this week's tempest over NATO ties.

"The sight of NATO-led war games in Georgia, which so recently attacked and killed Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, is an affront to the Russian public," says Dmitri Trenin, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The Kremlin had to react, and so it did. But now we can move on; both sides still want to develop the relationship."

As for nuclear disarmament, everyone agrees that it's a good thing, but the US must recognize that Russia relies more on its strategic nuclear deterrent for defense than the US does, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, an independent Moscow-based foreign policy journal.

"To reduce is one thing, but there is a certain level below which Russia cannot allow itself to go," he says. "But Medvedev's conditions are not an obstacle – they can also be seen as a practical starting point for moving toward the goal."

Experts say everyone must get accustomed to a Russia that asserts its hegemony more forcefully, something that could cause future friction over everything from gas pipelines to military bases. But it doesn't mean there can't be targeted cooperation in areas of mutual concern such as Afghanistan.

"It's a complicated, evolving relationship; you can't just sweep the pre-history under a carpet. But you can deal with it," says Mr. Lukyanov. "Nobody really thought that pressing the 'reset button' would produce a blank slate, did they?"

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