President Obama has presented the new arms control treaty he signed in Prague on April 8 as a "historic accomplishment" in both nuclear security and U.S. relations with Russia. But there are disturbing signs that the Obama Administration is overselling its progress with Russia, raising unrealistic hopes that Moscow would genuinely help in addressing the danger from Iran, the most likely nuclear threat to America and its allies.
The administration, eager to show foreign policy successes, argues that the new treaty with Russia, which calls on both sides to reduce their nuclear forces to 1500 warheads, reflects a significantly improved relationship that will help to deliver Moscow's support for strong sanctions against Tehran. But it is not clear that ties between the White House and the Kremlin have improved quite that much. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's performance in Argentina, right after the nuclear summit, demonstrates that ties between Washington and Moscow fall well short of partnership. "If somebody is bothered" in America by Moscow seeking a greater role in Latin America, "we want to spit on that." His statement led the news on Russian state television. Later in his "Spit Speech," the Russian President made clear that his government does not favor "paralyzing, crippling sanctions" - the only sanctions that could deter an Iranian regime determined to have a nuclear weapons capability.
Despite this, administration officials describe the arms control talks as a victory for Mr. Obama and a model for winning Russian support for sanctions. As the New York Times reported, they claimed that "Russia backed down" after the President made clear to Mr. Medvedev that the U.S. would not budge on Russia's insistence to establish a link between offensive and defensive strategic systems. Off-the-record, administration officials told reporters in Washington that the successor to the START treaty was so advantageous to the U.S. that the Russian media was hesitant to praise it.
The facts are quite different, however, and the administration's handling of the agreement evokes strong echoes of history. Coverage of the deal in Russia's state-controlled media has been unenthusiastic not because it is favorable to Washington, but largely because Kremlin officials specifically advised journalists to keep their excitement under control. This is revealingly reminiscent of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's instructions to the media through the Communist Party Politburo to avoid complimentary reporting on the SALT II Treaty, fearing that it could undermine President Jimmy Carters efforts to secure Senate ratification of the agreement.
I saw the real Russian attitude toward the treaty while participating in a Russian television program called "Think for Yourself." Broadcast after midnight, it is one of the few remaining shows during which participants can speak relatively freely on sensitive matters. There, prominent Russian specialists who had previously expressed concern about what the new treaty would look like were now endorsing it. According to Leonid Ivashov, a retired three-star general and well-known hard-liner, the treaty was a "real diplomatic success," because the Russian delegation "did not yield." Another well-known hardliner, Sergey Kurginyan, stated bluntly that "Russia could not have an easier partner on the topic of nuclear arms than Obama." (continue reading here)