Putin spoiling Obama’s nuclear plans?

Putin spoiling Obama’s nuclear plans?

Vladimir Putin deliberately threw a wrench into U.S.-Russian negotiations over a follow-on to the START nuclear reductions treaty yesterday when he explicitly linked the issue to U.S. missile-defense plans.

But what’s not mentioned in these otherwise excellent articles by the New York Times’ Ellen Barry and the Washington Times’ Eli Lake on the development is that the prime minister’s comments directly contradict the July 6 joint statement of U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who made it clear that missile defense would be dealt with separately from the START follow-on talks.

Moreover, in their July 8 Joint Understanding, the carefully negotiated compromise was spelled out. The START follow-on would include "a provision on the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms," nothing more, nothing less. Multiple senior administration officials have told The Cable that this compromise was well understood to mean that missile defense would be delinked from the START negotiations — and that was the assumption the American team led by Rose Gottemoeller was working under.

Some on the Obama team are now suggesting they have already factored in these types of games coming from the Russian side.

"This is not unexpected and negotiations will resume in mid-January as we have said they would," said an administration source familiar with where things stand.

So what’s going on? Well, there are two schools of thought among Russia experts. One is that Putin’s comments represent a clear difference between his view of U.S.-Russia relations and Medvedev’s. Medvedev, who is supposed to be in control of foreign policy, is more conciliatory and wants genuine rapprochement, the argument goes, whereas Putin … not so much.

Under this theory, there are two power structures in Moscow and they are jockeying for control. But even in this analysis, time and time again, Putin seems to win the day by making the final decision.

"Perhaps there is a power struggle, but if there is, it’s being overwhelmingly won and controlled by Putin’s faction," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Supposedly the idea was that Medvedev would tackle these types of issues. But then all the sudden Putin steps in and completely undermines him. Every time the going gets tough, Putin steps in and takes the reins."

The competing theory is that Putin and Medvedev are working somewhat in lockstep, again with Putin calling the shots and benefiting from the illusion of a power split. For Putin, it’s useful to have Medvedev out there as the nice guy (aided by the fact that he may genuinely want to cooperate), setting up a good cop/bad cop routine. That catches Western officials off guard and makes it convenient for Putin because he can wait until negotiations with Medvedev play out and then make his move at the eleventh hour.

The bottom line is that the START talks now seem to be at an impasse. Since the administration doesn’t deal directly as much with Putin’s faction, resolving the dispute is problematic. And although the Obama team denies that its adjustment of plans to deploy missile defense to Poland and the Czech Republic was a concession to Russia, it would be a tough sell domestically to make any further concessions on missile defense and still get START ratified in the Senate.

So what can the administration do? Petersen recalls a similar incident when Ronald Reagan was negotiating the original START agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. Gorby demanded that START be linked to U.S. missile defense and Reagan said it was not negotiable and walked out of the room.

"The result of Reagan taking a hard line was that it wasn’t linked from the beginning," said Petersen.

More broadly, the question is: What do the current problems with the START process say about Obama’s pledge to reset relations with Russia? Perhaps that Russia is looking at the long term and isn’t confident that Obama’s overtures will be continued by successive administrations.

"They view Obama as somewhat of an anomaly in U.S. foreign policy, and START is for decades," Petersen said.

For the U.S. side, this might also change the calculation about giving Russia concessions before a negotiation is near completion.

"You give them a finger and they take an arm," said Petersen. "With this statement [from Putin], the debate has shifted completely."

"It would certainly make the treaty dead on arrival in the Senate," said one senior GOP Senate aide, who added that senators will be watching to make sure the Obama administration won’t cut any side agreements involving the missile-defense program.