Will Medevev visit resolve ‘reset’ debate on Russia?

Will Medevev visit resolve ‘reset’ debate on Russia?

The U.S.-Russia "reset" begins phase two this week, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tours the United States and ends up face to face with U.S. President Barack Obama, almost exactly one year after their last summit meeting in Moscow.

Opinions on how the reset is going so far span the entire range of intellectual thought. Those who see Russia as a potentially constructive partner for the West are inclined to view the administration’s policy so far as a largely successful start to a new warming of ties.

The White House points to the new START agreement and improved cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran as evidence that its strategy is working.

But for those who see Medvedev as little more than a puppet of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a ruthless operator who is simultaneously reasserting Russian dominance over its near abroad while repressing opposition and rule of law at home, the reset has failed to tackle tough issues while foolishly elevating Russia’s status in world affairs.

"It’s pretty clear that, whether you like it or not, the U.S.-Russia relationship has significantly improved," said Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes. "There is, however, the serious question of why it was improved, and most important, to what end."

Analysts hope this week’s summit will at least clarify the debate.

"This is where we get to see if the reset is more than the sum of its parts," said Toby Gati, a former National Security Council senior director for Russia.

The Obama administration, Gati said, deliberately de-linked difficult issues in the U.S.-Russia relationship to allow progress on what was easier. Now, most of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and what remains are issues like Georgia, missile defense, and nuclear technology sharing, where the two countries remain much farther apart.

"Now we can find out, did the reset make a difference on the issues that are more difficult?" Gati said. "Let’s dive into the deep end. That’s where we are now."

Medvedev’s itinerary shows that modernization of the Russian economy — which he has tried to make one of his signature issues — is high on his agenda. He’ll tour Silicon Valley and meet with tech leaders Tuesday, speak at Stanford University Wednesday, and then eventually wind up in Washington for a meeting hosted by the Chamber of Commerce before he sits down with Obama Thursday.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the two presidents will discuss President Medvedev’s economic modernization and innovation agenda.

"President Obama has said that he would like to increase focus on our economic and trade relations, which are more limited than they should be given the size and strength of our economies," Vietor said. "We expect to discuss Russia’s bid for WTO membership as well as the interruption of American poultry exports to Russia."

Even the WTO bid could prove divisive.

Fred Bergsten and Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute of International Economics argued last week in an article for Foreign Policy that "the remaining hurdles are modest" and said that the United States should try to strike a deal this week, but others in Washington disagree.

"The fact that Russia is not in the WTO is not America’s fault; it is Russia’s fault," said former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer.

Russia was close to WTO membership last year when it upset the negotiations by announcing the formation of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Kramer noted.

"The problem is that the relationship itself became the goal; it became the end, and that’s why there are these claims of significant success and this has given the impression to the Russians that we need this relationship more than they do," Kramer said.

And while the administration can try not to link big issues, Kramer argued, in some cases they are linked in ways that are simply unavoidable. Any WTO member country can potentially thwart Russia’s accession, including Georgia.

Georgia is the one issue where NSC Senior Director for Russia Michael McFaul has admitted there has been "no progress" on what he calls the Russian "occupation" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Gordon said that Obama will raise the issue with Medvedev. "We are clear and strong on standing by Georgia and its territorial integrity," Gordon said.

The linkage will also come from Congress. Many on Capitol Hill are pointing to Obama’s statement that the Georgia issue is "no longer an obstacle" to moving forward with a civilian nuclear agreement with Iran as evidence that linkage exists.

Lawmakers will also want to see Russia commit not to sell the S-300 missile to Iran before agreeing to allow the nuclear deal to go through, and Republicans in particular will be watching closely to see what Medvedev says about missile defense in relation to the new START nuclear reduction treaty.