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Analysis & Opinion
20.03.08 The Lame Duck Challenge
By Yelena Biberman

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Moscow on March 17 for two day long two-plus-two “consultations” with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, and also to meet with President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev.

On her second day in Moscow, Rice also had breakfast with prominent Russian figures outside the government, including the head of the opposition party Yabloko Grigory Yavlinsky. “There are still many people in Russia today that see the United States as a threat,” Yavlinsky told Rice. He also said that he expected the agreement reached with Russia to help the next Russian and U.S. administrations understand the importance of a long-term strategic partnership between the two countries.

This round of the two-plus-two talks resulted from a phone conversation between George Bush and Putin two weeks ago, followed-up by the American president last week with a letter to his Russian colleague. According to Rice, Bush sought from Putin an opportunity “To assess whether there was openness to cooperation on some of the issues that have been difficult, like missile defense.”

The initial two-plus-two meeting was held on Oct. 12, 2007, in Russia. The breach of the diplomatic protocol (i.e. the effort the U.S. side made to travel once again to Russia, as opposed to having the Russian side visit the U.S. this time around) demonstrates that Russia is a priority on Washington’s foreign policy agenda. As the White House press secretary Dana Perino joked at the March 13 briefing announcing the event, it was not the beautiful Russian weather that inspired Rice and Gates to fly to Moscow.

Steven Sestanovich, Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that given the fact that Putin’s presidency will end on May 7, and there are only a few weeks left before the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, the U.S. side “thought that meeting with Lavrov and Serdyukov in Washington would be pointless.”

Fixing a failed legacy

Like his November 2007 stab at the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through the Annapolis Conference, Bush’s attempt to revamp the U.S.-Russian partnership via the latest round of the two-plus-two process may at first glance invoke the “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done” procrastination mantra. What are Washington’s motivations in pursuing a last-minute diplomatic exchange with Moscow? Does the timing of these talks render them moot?

Carol Saivetz, research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, sees Bush as motivated primarily by his desire to add some good news to his legacy. She is also critical of his persistence with the missile defense issue. “I can’t understand why they [Bush and members of his administration] would push so hard for a system that both host countries [Poland and Czech Republic] are ambivalent about at best and that is not yet proven functional,” Saivetz said.

Sestanovich, on the other hand, questions the legitimacy of Moscow’s concerns over the missile defense plan. Instead of focusing on the emerging threat from Iran, he said, Russia “Has tried to change the subject, by insisting (quite unconvincingly) that in fact the United States is threatening Russia with the proposed radars and ten interceptors in Eastern Europe.”

Oleg Ivanov, a professor at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, said that Washington’s trip to Moscow was guided by two major objectives. Firstly, Rice and Gates wanted to meet Medvedev as soon as possible, and to find out his attitude on the issues affecting the U.S.-Russian relationship. Secondly, the United States sought to “sweeten the pill,” as Washington disclosed that it would not give Russia a veto power over the missile defense sites.

Ivanov doubts that the latest round of the two-plus-two process accomplished anything meaningful. He pointed out that the meeting with Medvedev was “of little use, as next year a new president and his team will work in the White House, and they will have to meet Medvedev themselves.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, also believes that given the fact that both countries are on the verge of large-scale reconfiguration of power, any agreements reached by them now are basically useless. Moreover, he pointed out that if a Democrat is elected, Washington’s plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe may change slightly.

However, not everyone agrees with the lame duck assessment. Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy who now hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy, also met with Rice on March 18, and commended the U.S. side for not wasting valuable time on building trust in the United States-Russia relationship. The most important outcome of the two-plus-two event, according to Ryzkkov, was the dialogue between the U.S. and Russian sides. While Rice and Gates remained inflexible on issues such as the location of the third missile defense position, the Russian side was given the opportunity to present its concerns directly to the United States, while also receiving the American points in writing, said Ryzhkov. “There are still eight months left of Bush’s presidency, and, in politics, that’s a long time,” he added.

In his remarks made on March 17, Gates expressed confidence that Washington and Moscow will reach an agreement over missile defense before Bush’s term in office expires.

Baby steps toward improvement

As the outgoing president with little public support behind him and limited global political capital, Bush tried to employ what leverage he has left from his good personal relationship with Putin, to resuscitate Russia’s goodwill toward the United States.

Unlike the first round, this second round of the two-plus-two talks was treated with less cynicism by the government-controlled Russian television channels. The Channel One evening news program said that “our concerns have been heard” and quoted Lavrov as saying that the Russian side was offered “important and useful proposals.” Channel Rossiya was slightly more critical in its evening Vesti Plus news report, quoting Lavrov as saying that Moscow and Washington have not yet reached any agreement over the missile defense issue and that U.S. offers remain unclear to him. However, the U.S. offer to put everything in writing received a positive review.

While the U.S.-Russian relationship is not likely to improve within the next eight to ten months, to the high level achieved at the beginning of Bush’s first term, the friendly and generally upbeat tone in which the two sides publically evaluated the talks on March 18 suggests that the relationship between the Moscow and Washington has begun to thaw.

At the very least, the event accomplished two important tasks. Firstly, the two-plus-two format gave Medvedev a chance to make an impression on the Americans. “We should create a base for ensuring continuity in Russian-American relations in the future. We have all opportunities for this,” the Russian president-elect told the U.S. secretaries, thereby expressing faith in the two-plus-two process. Secondly, the publicity surrounding the talks helped the United States with the very issue Yavlinsky highlighted during his meeting with Rice – one that is not a secret to Americans – the fact that the Russian public widely perceives the United States as an aggressive hegemon. The good publicity on March 18 may have been squandered on March 19, however, when the Russian government-controlled television channels displayed the American president’s friendly meeting with Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili. Special emphasis was made on Bush’s approval for Georgia joining NATO.
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