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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Summit Off, U.S.-Russian Talks Go On

Tom Z. Collina

Despite public friction over several issues between Russia and the United States, including the postponement of an upcoming presidential meeting, high-level discussions on nuclear arms reductions and missile defense are continuing, according to senior officials on both sides.

Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is wanted for leaking classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs to the media, was a recent and high-profile irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship. That decision prompted sharp criticism from Congress and was cited by President Barack Obama as a reason for calling off a planned Sept. 3 summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The summit could be rescheduled, according to the senior officials, and just two days after the postponement announcement, the United States hosted a previously scheduled Aug. 9 meeting in Washington of defense and foreign ministers, known as a “2+2” meeting. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Obama and Putin had agreed to revive the 2+2 process at the June 17-18 Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.

Both sides reported that they had made progress at the Aug. 9 meeting. “I do not think that the Snowden affair colored the engagement of the 2+2,” a senior U.S. official said during a press call after the meeting. “We would like to hold a summit with Russia, but the substance needs to be there, and so this 2+2 mechanism is a way to move forward,” the official said.

Striking a similar theme, Lavrov said during an Aug. 10 press conference that “Snowden is an anomaly” and there is “no cold war.” He said the two sides had agreed to continue the 2+2 meetings to discuss complicated issues “based on mutual benefit, mutual respect, [and] equality.” Lavrov added that Russia pays attention “to specific issues rather than those issues which some would like to make headlines in the mass media.” A schedule for future meetings was not announced.

Lavrov said that the Aug. 9 meeting “paid particular attention to the anti-ballistic missile problems.” The United States is fielding a missile interceptor system in Europe to defend NATO member states against a possible future missile attack from Iran. Moscow says it is concerned that the U.S. system could be used to target its long-range missiles based in western Russia. Hagel announced in March that the Pentagon had canceled the part of the program that Russia found most threatening, the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy for NATO is known, which included plans to field the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB interceptor. Moscow, however, has continued to express doubts about U.S. intentions. (See ACT, April 2013.)

According to a second senior U.S. official speaking during the Aug. 9 press call, the participants agreed to “look for ways to work together on missile defense, missile defense cooperation, and to explore the possibilities for further nuclear reductions.” Obama said in June that the United States could reduce the number of its deployed strategic nuclear weapons “by up to one-third” and that he intended “to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.” (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

Obama finalized new nuclear policy guidance in June that found that the 1,550 limit on deployed strategic warheads under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is “more than adequate” to meet U.S. national security objectives. The new guidance did not call for any immediate changes to currently deployed nuclear forces. That apparently will have to wait a year or so, until the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff translate the new guidance into more-specific directives. Once U.S. Strategic Command drafts new plans for using nuclear weapons, the administration can make changes to the way in which the United States deploys those weapons. For example, the new policy may allow the Navy to reduce the number of nuclear-armed submarines at sea.

Russia is resisting Obama’s call for reductions due to its concerns about U.S. missile defense and other issues. “Apart from the deployment of European missile defense elements at the sites that have already been determined, we believe issues related to sea-based systems, especially in the Barents and the Baltic Seas, should also be addressed,” Shoigu said.

In an effort to break this logjam, Obama’s then-national security adviser, Tom Donilon, hand-delivered a letter to Putin in April with a U.S. proposal on missile defense cooperation and arms reductions. The second U.S. official at the Aug. 9 briefing said that “we’re still waiting for their formal counterproposal, but they are evidently working on it, and they are ready to engage us intensively on it.”

Lavrov said there are items to discuss at a future summit, including a proposal to boost bilateral contacts and information exchange on nuclear weapons proliferation through Russia’s National Nuclear Threat Reduction Center and to allow the Russian state-run nuclear company Rosatom to collaborate with U.S. national laboratories.

Despite some signs of progress at the working level, Republicans in Congress expressed pessimism about the prospect of Obama-Putin talks in the future. “Obviously, the relationship is souring,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, Politico reported Aug. 9. “And obviously we’re in a period of time in our relationship with Russia where it’s likely the discussions of this nature are not going to be fruitful,” Corker said.

Politico also quoted Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) as saying that the administration should stop trying to win Russian support for U.S. missile defense plans. “The administration needs to be committed to a missile defense policy that is North Korea and Iran directed and quit tying our missile defense initiatives to an elusive Russian relationship,” Turner said.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued an Aug. 8 statement saying, “[N]ow we must move beyond symbolic acts and take the steps necessary to establish a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia,” including moving forward with “completion of all phases of our missile defense programs in Europe,” an apparent reference to the now-canceled fourth phase of the planned deployment in Europe.

Obama still plans to travel to the Russian city of St. Petersburg on September 5-6 to attend the Group of 20 summit, but it is not clear if he plans to meet one-on-one with Putin while he is there.