The Cable

Biden sees New START as part of drive to strengthen Medvedev over Putin

The U.S.-Russian "reset," meant to repair relations between the two former rivals, has been led by U.S. President Barack Obama and his counterpart, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The White House sees the reset, along with its key deliverable, the New START nuclear reductions treaty, as part of its effort to strengthen Medvedev’s credibility within the ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The U.S.-Russian "reset," meant to repair relations between the two former rivals, has been led by U.S. President Barack Obama and his counterpart, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The White House sees the reset, along with its key deliverable, the New START nuclear reductions treaty, as part of its effort to strengthen Medvedev’s credibility within the Russian system, as opposed to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Vice President Joseph Biden spoke of how New START fits into the administration’s drive to empower Medvedev at a small roundtable on Nov. 20 with a group of foreign affairs columnists, including your humble Cable guy.

"I do believe that there is a play here," he said. "Medvedev has rested everything on this notion of a reset. Who knows what Putin would do? My guess is he would not have gone there [in terms of committing to the reset], but maybe."

Russia experts aren’t so sure that passing New START would strengthen Medvedev’s position vis a vis Putin. Most of them believe that Putin was, is, and will likely remain the more powerful of the two Russian leaders.

Biden acknowledged that nobody in Washington, including himself, really knows what’s going on inside the Kremlin between Medvedev and Putin, but he truly believes that a stronger "reset" policy, which includes ratifying New START, is good for Medvedev — and a stronger Medvedev is good for U.S.-Russia relations.

"The centerpiece of where Medvedev is, is this reset. And [START] is the crown jewel inside that reset, because it wasn’t Putin pushing this, it was Medvedev," Biden explained. "I’m not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we’re back in a Cold War with Russia. But I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might be different."

Biden pointed to what he characterized as "unprecedented" Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran as areas where the reset policy has advanced U.S. interests, and which could be jeopardized if New START fails.

But Russia experts from the left and right agreed that the idea of a rift on foreign policy between Medvedev and Putin is often exaggerated in Washington, and that Medvedev isn’t likely to have pursued the reset without Putin’s agreement. But they also agreed that Putin’s likely return to the presidency in 2012 spells trouble for the U.S.-Russia relationship.

"We have a tendency in Washington to see a mortal struggle over the strategic direction of Russia between Medvedev and Putin that simply doesn’t exist in reality," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress. "However, the implications of a return to the presidency for Putin are serious and significant in a negative way for the U.S."

As president, Putin did engage in arms control agreements with the Bush administration, including signing the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), known as the Moscow Treaty, which would be nullified by New START. But Putin also left office with a bad taste in his mouth regarding arms control deals with Washington, after the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty..

Charap said it’s wise to have a "healthy skepticism" about Biden’s notion that there are real differences on strategic questions between Medvedev and Putin. "I cannot imagine that major strategic decisions of national import are taken by Medvedev without the consultation of Putin," he said.

Whether or not Putin would be more or less amenable to New START, the Obama administration shouldn’t be trying to play the murky game of internal Russian politics, other experts said.

"It’s a dangerous path to go down to try to split Medvedev and Putin," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Although focusing on Medvedev seems to have produced some dividends, we should not be under the illusion that we can elevate Medvedev to be the principal decision maker, because he will never be as long as Putin is around."

"I don’t see any evidence to show that there’s a split between Medvedev and Putin on this issue," Petersen said. "They actually agree on this issue, which is that they are willing to cooperate now but they will take any opportunity to get out of their responsibilities while holding the U.S. to their side of the agreement."

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Russia’s former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who served under President Putin, described the Medvedev-Putin relationship as that between "a boss and senior assistant who temporarily occupies the position of president of the country."

When asked if he thinks Putin will run for president in 2012, Kasyanov said, "I wouldn’t say ‘run,’ just step in."

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