Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Proverbial Reset Button: Was It Pressed or Stroked in Moscow?

In February, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that “it’s time to press the reset button” on U.S. relations with Russia he could not have imagined what far-reaching effect his words would have. On March 6, in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a palm-sized yellow box with a red “reset button” to symbolize improved ties between the two countries. But something must have been lost in translation – the button had the Russian word peregruzka printed on it, but the Russian word for ‘reset’ is perezagruzka, while peregruzka means ‘overload’ or ‘overcharge’.

Regardless of the dodgy translation, the reset button gimmick in Geneva served its purpose as it allowed for a ceremonial rebooting of relations and expanded, as an inadvertent side effect, a rather limited list of Russian words that are well-known outside the country, such as perestroika, glasnost, vodka, matryoshka, balalaika, sputnik, gulag, and pogrom.

Ever since, the word ‘reset’ (perezagruzka) has often been invoked by the Obama administration when describing what they would like to do regarding U.S.-Russian relations. “What I said coming in is that I wanted to press the reset button on relations between the United States and Russia,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with the Russian media ITAR-TASS/ROSSIYA TV on the eve of his visit to Moscow.

The idea won popularity in Russia as well. On the weekend before President Obama’s visit to Russia the misspelled reset button came to light on Pushkin Square in Moscow – a ten-minute walking distance from the Kremlin – for ordinary people to press. The button was placed on a table between cardboard cutouts of presidents Obama and Medvedev. The “Reset U.S.-Russian relations” event was organized by the Russian official state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, which borrowed the button from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

So, were U.S.-Russian relations really reset when Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev met in the Kremlin on July 6? Were the heads of the two countries able to eventually press this proverbial perezagruzka button?

It appears that the summit resulted in several vital practical achievements. But at the same time it demonstrated that some substantial disagreements remain.

It seems that the crisis in U.S.-Russian relations – which at the end of the Bush administration were at their worst since the 1990s – has now been overcome. The tone of bilateral dialogue has changed from confrontational rhetoric to pragmatic discussions on issues of primary concern for both nations.

One of the most urgent issues before the two presidents was to achieve progress on a replacement for a vital U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement – the START I treaty that expires this December. The task is a formidable one as the preparation of the START I took nine years, while a “START-Plus” treaty would only have nine months to negotiate after being effectively frozen by the Bush administration. As far as one can judge from the available information, the negotiations have encountered certain difficulties, with U.S. missile defense plans and Russian demands for sharper cuts in strategic delivery vehicles (land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and heavy bombers) presenting the key obstacles. Nevertheless in Moscow the presidents signed the Joint Understanding that outlines a new strategic arms control deal at the same time reflecting both mutual agreements and disagreements.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed to reduce the number of strategic delivery vehicles to 550-1,100, and the number of their associated warheads to 1,500-1,675. The specific numbers should be agreed on through further negotiations and recorded in the treaty. The warhead range of 1,500-1,675 does not look like a dramatic reduction when compared with the lower limit of 1,700 warheads of the Moscow SORT treaty signed in 2002 by presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. But the reality is that a START-Plus treaty should be concluded soon, preferably before December 2009, to preserve the verification mechanisms, which otherwise would disappear with the expiration of the START I treaty. The negotiating teams simply do not have the luxury of time to negotiate deeper cuts now. In this regard, the START-Plus treaty could be considered as an important but interim agreement preserving the continuity of the arms control and disarmament process. And, it paves the way for a next agreement that would take more time to negotiate.

The wide range for delivery vehicles – from 500 to 1100 – simply reflects the distinct negotiating positions of the two countries on this issue. The United States reportedly proposed setting the limit at 1100 strategic delivery vehicles while Russia suggested a significantly lower number, probably 500 delivery vehicles. This reflects the current status of strategic forces – the last START count on 1 January 2009 shows that the United States has 1198 strategic delivery vehicles, while Russia has 814. The Russian side is already well below the proposed level of 1100 delivery vehicles, and as Russia continues decommissioning old Soviet-era weapon systems 500 seems a reasonable number for it to suggest.

The presidents and their teams found a rather elegant solution when they included both suggested limits for strategic delivery vehicles in the Joint Understanding on the START follow-on treaty. But this will most certainly be an additional headache for the treaty negotiators who will have to come up with a more definite limit very soon. The number of delivery vehicles may become a major point of contention at the START-plus talks. But there are other difficult issues as well – there is no clarity regarding counting rules and verification procedures. Will a START-plus treaty follow the definitions and counting rules for strategic delivery vehicles and their associated warheads from the START I treaty or will they be modified? Will complex verification procedures from the old treaty be preserved, or will the new treaty opt for some kind of ‘verification lite’? Gary Samore, a U.S. National Security Council official for arms control, recently said that any new U.S.-Russian arms control agreement should “be free of the Cold War burden of intrusive inspections”. How then will this new START-plus treaty differ from the Moscow SORT treaty, which does not envisage any verification at all?

The Joint Understanding on the START follow-on treaty acknowledges “the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms”, which can be considered to be a reference to the Russian concerns with U.S. missile defense plans, especially the third missile defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic. Prior to his visit to Moscow, President Obama gave an interview to an opposition Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta, in which he said “In our meeting in London on April 1st, President Medvedev and I issued a joint statement on instructions for our negotiators for this new treaty. These instructions very explicitly did not mention missile defense as a topic of discussion for these negotiations”. The missile defenses may be another point of contention at the START-plus talks.

It does not seem that the parties are going to drastically change their positions on this issue. In Moscow the presidents signed the Joint Statement on Missile Defense Issues in which they rather vaguely agreed, “to continue the discussion concerning the establishment of cooperation in responding to the challenge of ballistic missile proliferation”. It is unclear right now what practical steps could follow from this statement.

Besides arms control, the United States and Russia agreed on a number of important bilateral issues that will contribute to improved relations between the two countries. For example, Russia will allow the transit of U.S. military personnel and lethal equipment through its territory to Afghanistan. The U.S. and Russian chiefs of staff agreed to resume military-to-military cooperation between the two nations. Moreover, Russia agreed to lift some restrictions on livestock trade with the United States – a market worth $1.3 billion a year.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev decided to create a U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission to serve as a new foundation for bilateral cooperation. This commission could actually be a very important development, for it provides different governmental agencies with a direct channel to their counterparts, a facility that was virtually absent during the Bush administration. An interesting thing is that the presidents decided to change the format of this new commission as compared to the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission of the 1990s, which was then co-chaired by the U.S. Vice President and the Russian Premier Minister. The new commission will be chaired by the presidents themselves and its work will be coordinated by Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Maybe the heads of states just didn’t want to leave the fate of their new undertaking at disposal of such “tough customers” as Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. It may be easier to find common ground for Obama and Medvedev, who throughout their summit repeatedly emphasized that they like and trust each other.

For all the upbeat public statements, a pall of disagreement over missile defense, NATO expansion and the situation around Abkhazia and South Ossetia lingered over the Kremlin hall where Obama and Medvedev had a press conference to present the results of their talks. There, President Obama reiterated his “firm belief that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected”. His respect for international law can only be admired. But why are the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia more important than, say, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia? And what do we do with the Abkhazians and Ossetians who are not willing to live in one state with the Georgians after suffering through several military conflicts with them?

The spar over Georgia tends to hide broader issues. These include the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, and what the Russians perceive as American interference in the region.

President Obama did not hint at waiving such Cold War leftover as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which denies most-favored-nation status to Russia, and serves as a barrier to trade between the two countries. First enacted in 1974, it made normal trade relations with the Soviet Union contingent on free emigration. Russia has now allowed such freedom for years, but the amendment remains in force merely to provide Congress with political leverage over Russia.

In his speech at the New Economic School President Obama said, “America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia” and “NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation”. Hopefully he will keep his word and practice what he preaches.

The July summit of Presidents Obama and Medvedev certainly was a good start in resetting U.S.-Russian relations. Despite remaining differences it brought important practical results. The future will show whether further steps to create a new model of U.S.-Russian relations will follow.

This is a guest post by Dr. Yury Yudin. Yury is a Senior Researcher at UNIDIR and manages the project ‘Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle'.
His new study paper, 'Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Assessing the Existing Proposals' is available in PDF format by clicking here.

Image of 'Cutler Hammer Reset Button' by J L-S retrieved from Flickr.com.