President Barack Obama is in the midst of a spate of moves to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, his moves coinciding with the ongoing resurgence of Russia.
That there is a strong connection here is only to be expected. America and Russia are the two nuclear superpowers on the planet. Obama can't get what he wants without Russia. And Russia has much that it wants in order to continue erasing the memory of its '90s near-collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union.
With his Washington summit this week with the leaders of 47 nations -- the largest summit hosted by an American president since the 1945 founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco -- Obama's focus is on securing materials that could lead to the possession of nuclear weapons by additional states or transnational terrorists. Clearly he needs Russia's help on that, along with final agreement on securing the country's Cold War materials. Last week, Obama announced a new U.S. nuclear strategy, then journeyed to Prague, site of his speech a year ago laying out his goal to end the threat of nuclear weapons. On Thursday, he and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a treaty to reduce each country's nuclear arsenal to 1550 weapons apiece.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a major nuclear arms reduction treaty Thursday in Prague.
There was controversy on the Russian side about this treaty, which came much slower than Obama had hoped, because it did not include specific language guaranteeing that the ballistic missile shield project proposed by the Bush/Cheney White House, slated for Poland and the Czech Republic, would not be aimed at Russia. The rationale for it is to protect against Iran.
But signing the treaty was always in the Russian interest. Reducing the difficulty and expense of maintaining an aging nuclear arsenal outweighs the hazy future risk of a small anti-missile system that could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And even with the treaty, both countries still possess the ability to destroy the world many times over.
What Obama wants, as he is now saying, is to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, which he regards as the principal national security threat against the U.S., and to prevent Iran and North Korea from possessing deliverable nuclear weapons. He also needs help with the war in Afghanistan.
While it's in Russia's interest to prevent nuclear chaos, too, what Russia really wants is to project its influence again throughout the post-Soviet space. Both for reasons of its own long-term security -- Russia has historically been far more vulnerable to invasion than America -- and for continuing its resurgence as a global power.
Last April in Prague, Obama laid out his vision of a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.
So much of this is really about jockeying back and forth around continuing the expansion of NATO towards Russia's borders (a mostly conservative policy that ironically goes back to the Clinton Administration, and the first Bush Administration) vs. Russia projecting its influence outward again through what was the Soviet Union and former Soviet bloc countries.
For his geopolitics to work, Obama has to let Russia do at least some of what it can probably do anyway, while not seeming to abandon new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe.
So after Obama and Medvedev signed the nuclear arms reduction treaty, which will cut the atomic arsenals of both the U.S. and Russia by nearly one-third, he spent the rest of his time in Prague meeting with the leaders of a dozen Central and Eastern European nations.
Obama is in the midst of a nine-day period of intense focus on nuclear weapons. Before the Prague summit last week, Obama announced a new nuclear doctrine for the U.S. He renounced the development of new nuclear weapons and narrowed the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be used, explicitly renouncing the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Which, notably, does not include Iran and North Korea.
Obama declared that nuclear terrorism, carried out by transnational, state-less groups and rogue nations, is the greatest threat to America's national security.
All of these moves appear to be fine with Russia, whose help is necessary in any sanctions regime against Iran.
Iran has not changed its tune on its aggressive nuclear program. The country just unveiled new technology in a splashy ceremony.
Nevertheless, following the treaty signing in Prague, Medvedev introduced a few not unexpected wrinkles.
First, Medvedev called for an American/Russian partnership in the development of a global ballistic missile defense system. Then he said that the just-signed treaty will be nullified if U.S. ballistic missile defense development appears aimed at Russia.
Would Russia really back away from a treaty signed with such fanfare? Or is the concern not so much about a speculative anti-missile system but about the potential commitment of a large number of American troops for the ostensible purpose of protecting the anti-missile installations?
For all this semi-public jockeying, Russia's project of projecting its power in the post-Soviet space has picked up very nicely this year.
Pro-Moscow politician Viktor Yanukovich, villain of the Orange Revolution five years ago, was elected Ukraine's president in February.
First, Ukraine's pro-American president, who wanted to move the Soviet republic into NATO, received only 5% of the vote in the first round of January's presidential elections. A pro-Russian president was elected in February. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the ongoing power in Moscow (Medvedev was his chief of staff), has since offered uninterrupted natural gas supplies and new nuclear power plants.
Then last week, there was a sudden uprising and coup in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan hosts the last remaining U.S. base in Central Asia, a base key to military operations in Afghanistan.
The interim leader of that government, former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, says that previous international accords will be honored by the new government. Which includes the Manas Air Base, responsible for aerial refueling operations over Afghanistan and the transit hub for the Obama military surge there. I don't know that this includes a second U.S. base there, an anti-terrorism center just announced last month.
Mourners turned out Friday in Kyrgyzstan's capital city of Bishkek to honor those who died in Wednesday's uprising which led to the sudden replacement of the government. The new government says it will keep the U.S. base there open, and welcomes assistance from Russia.
Of course, this declaration by the leader of a just declared interim government can hardly be taken to the bank. It took the personal intercession of Obama last year to keep the base open, along with a substantial increase in U.S. payments to the impoverished, landlocked nation.
The head of the new interim government, Otunbayeva, began her tenure by asking Putin for major economic assistance. Otunbayeva was educated at the elite Moscow State University, and served as Soviet ambassador to UNESCO and Soviet ambassador to Malaysia prior to Kyrgyzstan becoming an independent country.
On Thursday came Medvedev's turn on the global stage with Obama in Prague.
Then on Saturday, in a quirk of fate sure to be fodder for conspiracy theorists, Polish President Lech Kaczynski, a pro-American, relatively anti-Russian figure who welcomed the Bush/Cheney Administration's proposed anti-missile base in Poland, was killed in Russia.
Kaczynski's aging, Russian-made presidential plane crashed on approach at the fog-shrouded Smolensk airport.
Some 96 other people died along with the Polish president, including Poland's first lady, the head of the armed forces general staff and the commanders of each branch of the Polish military, the head of the national security council, and the president of the national bank.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and some of the country's most prominent military and civilian leaders died Saturday when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia.
Kaczynski was such a staunch nationalist conservative that he once accused Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa, who launched the revolt against the Communist state in Poland, of having been a spy for the KGB.
Putin said that he will take personal charge of the investigation into the crash of the Polish presidential jet. Ironically, the Polish leaders were arriving to commemorate with Russian leaders the infamous Katyn massacre by Soviet secret police of the Polish officer corps (captured after the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland) and many other Polish leaders.
Whatever caused this latest tragedy, and the landing was being attempted in dense fog, the net effect is the removal of a critic of Russia from Poland's presidency, and the devastation of much of the country's top leadership.
Not surprisingly, Russia declared a day of mourning for the victims. And Medvedev will attend the late president's funeral on April 17th.
As will Obama.