It makes a lot more sense to focus a visit on something like the nuclear issue, where U.S. and Russian interests are roughly in alignment and some high-level discussions stand a decent chance of bearing fruit.
I’m all for “de-linkage” in U.S.-Russia relations -- working together where our interests converge, agreeing to disagree where our interests conflict, and preventing those disagreements from impeding constructive cooperation. In short, what Bush and Putin spelled out last April in Sochi.
That said, let’s be honest about what that means for our interests: It means that Obama has just invested a lot of time and effort to secure an agreement to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles to a level that could still annihilate the world several times over. This may be an achievable goal, but it is hardly a pressing one -- not when Iran is speeding toward a weapon of its own, and the United States and Russia cannot seem to find much agreement on how to proceed on that.
Indeed, the question of Iran is illustrative, because Russia has solid national interests in never, ever wanting to see Iran open to the world -- the critical carrot that the West holds out in every diplomatic gambit it has conceived on the Iranian nuclear question. The reason? Gas. Nick Gvosdev explains:
One potential concern for Russia is that if it joins in putting real pressure on Tehran, Iran could eventually negotiate a Libya-style settlement with the West, clearing the way for major new Western investments in Iran’s energy sector.
Right now, Moscow benefits from Iran’s isolation from the West. Not only are Iran’s formidable gas reserves not accessible to European users, preserving Russia as the Continent’s major supplier, but alternate routes for Central Asian energy that could traverse Iran are also not possible.
Yet resolution of the nuclear issue could open up the vast reserves of Iranian natural gas for use through the Nabucco line, the major pipeline on the drawing boards for getting energy to Europe without going through Russia. The project is currently nearly moribund because there isn’t enough supply to justify the huge investments. Iran would be a game-changer.
So color me skeptical that Russian interests will ever lead it to be an effective partner in pressuring Iran on its nuclear weapons ambitions. And what's more, anyone who thinks the U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions that Obama just won will help to halt the Iranian nuclear program needs to refrain from operating heavy machinery. Something tells me that Iran’s rulers will be none too persuaded to give up their nuclear aspirations simply because the United States and Russia have now agreed to retain a couple thousand fewer nukes apiece between them.
As for the other accomplishment of Obama’s trip -- Russia’s offer to open its airspace for U.S. military re-supply of the war in Afghanistan -- I’m of two minds: Given the uncertainty still surrounding Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and the insecurity of supply routes through Pakistan, it’s nice to have another option; but we are now directly at the mercy of Russia for a service that they can use against us as a political weapon if they see fit. Just ask Ukrainians with gas-heated homes how that’s working out for them.
All of this should raise a fundamental question for those who harbor high hopes for hitting that reset button with Russia: How good should we feel about a U.S.-Russia relationship where we can make progress on many issues of questionable importance while we disagree over most of the important stuff?