President Obama has pledged to make it a top priority to get US Senate approval for the START nuclear arms reduction treaty that he signed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, and he says it must get done during the current lame-duck session of Congress.
The Russians, who have pinned a lot of their own foreign policy calculations on the success of the treaty, are watching nervously and signaling that future cooperation in trouble zones like Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan is at stake if Mr. Obama fails.
Nuclear arms control is the single area where Russians feel they can sit down and talk with Americans as equals, and Obama's decision last year to make START the engine driving his effort to improve US-Russian relations means that if it stalls now, the entire effort could collapse.
"The START accord was the key result of Obama's policy of 'resetting' relations with Russia, and if it doesn't get ratified it means that the whole concept will have to be rethought," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.
"For Medvedev, it would be a disaster," he adds. "If START fails, he will immediately face attacks over his policy of making concessions to the US, and we know there are plenty of people here who will say that his decision to cut off arms sales to Iran was against Russia's national interests."
"When we look upon how important Russian support has been" on issues like getting the UN Security Council to approve tough Iran sanctions and setting up a resupply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan through former Soviet territory, "my hope is that because this is a good treaty we should get it done," he said.
Urgency before newly elected Republicans take office
Medvedev and Obama will meet again at the NATO summit this weekend in Lisbon, and Russian experts say they hope to hear good tidings about the fate of START by then.
"This treaty is such an important step for our two countries, but to go further down this road we need to see it ratified," says Gennady Yevstafiev, an expert with the PIR Center, an independent Moscow think tank that specializes in nuclear security issues. "On the other hand, how can we trust the US if the president signs an agreement, but Congress says no? A lot of people are watching this very carefully."
Obama said he reiterated to Medvedev his "commitment to getting the START treaty done during the lame-duck session," he said, referring to the period before January, when newly elected Congressmen take office.
After Republicans swept midterm elections earlier this month, the key international committee of Russia's State Duma voted to withdraw its pledge of automatic ratification for START. The committee's chairman, Konstantin Kosachyov warned that the whole treaty – now awaiting ratification by a two-thirds Senate vote – might have to be negotiated if Republican senators try to engineer major amendments on the pact.
"I am very much concerned about ratification of the treaty in the US Senate, taking into account the results of the mid-term elections there," Mr. Kosachyov said. "If the 'lame duck' senators do not ratify it in the next two weeks, the chances it will be done by the new Republican-dominated Congress are slimmer than ever."
START failure could push Russia back toward China
The START treaty would reduce the limit on strategic warheads for the US and Russia from the current ceiling of 2,200 to 1,550. It would also establish new procedures to enable both countries to inspect each other's weapons sites to verify compliance.
Unlike the US Senate, there is little chance that Russia's Duma will depart from the Kremlin's chosen script. But analysts point out that Russia is heading into a period of domestic political uncertainty, as the treaty's sponsor, Medvedev, struggles with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the establishment's nomination for presidential elections slated for 2012.
And Mr. Putin has more than once publicly criticized the START deal, for what he and many Russian hawks see as a lack of protection for Russia's ageing nuclear deterrent against US plans to build a globe-girdling missile defense shield.
Putin's concerns are widely shared by Russian military policymakers.
"The principal disagreement is that the Americans tell us: 'Our missile defense program is not aimed against you,' while we say: 'No, according to our calculations it actually is,' " Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after a visit to the US in September.
Mr. Medvedev has tweaked the Kremlin's foreign policy to become more friendly to the West over the past year, arguing that if Russia hopes to modernize its sagging economy and become a player in the globalized economy, it needs to befriend advanced Western countries and cut loose former associates like Iran, Venezuela, and even China.
"If it turns out that we cannot even get a responsible, mutually beneficial, and properly negotiated arms control treaty accepted, then people will inevitably say the US is not a country we can do business with," says Mr. Kremeniuk.
"There are a lot of people here who say our natural partner should be China," he says. "The danger is that the failure of START could lead to a major strategic reversal."