06/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Russian Miracle: How the Kremlin Backed Down on the Nuclear Treaty

The treaty Barack Obama signed with his Russian counterpart on April 8 is an astounding victory for the White House, perhaps the greatest one to come out of Obama's foreign policy so far. On the face of it, it may not have looked all that revolutionary. The treaty promises to shrink the world's two biggest nuclear arsenals by a third, rendering harmless about a thousand warheads. But both countries will still have enough nukes to destroy the entire planet at least seven times over, and much like in the days of the Cold War, the main failsafe against a nuclear holocaust is still the idea of mutually assured destruction. So from a military perspective, little has changed. Yet from the point of view of diplomacy, Obama has managed in the course of these negotiations to make the Kremlin back down. Not just on some cosmetic issue, but on an issue of enormous strategic consequence, his team starred down the most powerful Kremlin clan, the ex-KGB and military hardliners who usually have the ear of Vladimir Putin. That is a remarkable achievement.

From the beginning of these talks, the two sides have been grappling over just one issue. Russia wanted to include a point in the treaty that would prevent the United States from building its anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe. They believed (and with good reason) that this shield could be used against Russia if Russia ever decided to lob one of its warheads at the West. (Indeed it could be, and I don't believe the Americans when they say the shield is meant only to protect against Iran and North Korea.) So the Russians argued that if the U.S. were to build an effective missile shield, there would be no point in even talking about nuclear arms reductions. Russia might as well destroy all of its nukes, because the West would have a way of shooting them out of the sky.

From their side, the American negotiators insisted that the two things must be kept separate. They were willing to talk about their plans for missile defense, but later, in another document. First there had to be a deal specifically reducing the number of nukes and the rockets and submarines that carry them. That was it. That was the dilemma. And they struggled over it for four months, missing deadline after deadline in a diplomatic marathon that frequently embarrassed Obama, who had promised to have the whole thing wrapped up back in December.

As recently as March 23, it was clear that the Kremlin hawks were standing their ground. General Nikolai Makarov, Russia's top military commander, said in an interview published that day that Russia would not go ahead with any deal to reduce their nukes unless it also blocked U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe. "If the Americans continue to expand their missile defenses, they will certainly target our nuclear capability and in this case the balance of forces will shift in favor of the United States," the general told the state-run daily, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The final deadline for signing the treaty was only two weeks away at that point, and I thought for sure it would be another humiliation for Obama. The talks were clearly getting nowhere.

It seemed that way because Makarov speaks for the dominant clan in Russian politics, the guys known as siloviki (roughly, the men-at-arms). Putin is himself a former chief of the secret police, and sympathizes with this faction on almost every major issue. There is a more moderate, liberal clan led by President Dmitry Medvedev, but it is by far the weaker one, and ultimately, it is also subservient to Putin's will. The signals coming from Putin suggested that he was again siding with the hawks.

But at some point in the final days before the signing ceremony in Prague, something changed. Either the siloviki softened up (which is very unlikely), or Obama's charms proved irresistible (totally unrealistic), or they were over-ruled by Putin himself. Whatever Putin's reasoning might have been for this (perhaps he didn't want to make Russia again look like the eternal spoiler), the text of the treaty is clear: there is no clause preventing the U.S. from building its missile shield; Putin has granted Obama that concession.

It has to be kept in mind, however, that Russia is not going to forget about this issue. Medvedev made that clear during his speech in Prague. "We said it quite openly that the Treaty can be effective and viable only if the US refrains from increasing its missile defence capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively in such a way that threatens the potential of Russia's strategic nuclear forces. This is the essence of the Russian Federation's Statement [on Missile Defence] made in connection with the signing of the Treaty and which will of course be published."

Sure, Dima, publish away. But you still have at best a verbal promise from the Americans to think about missile defense, whereas you have put your signature to the deal Obama needed so badly to prove the mettle of his foreign policy. They can of course back out of the treaty, but that would shatter Russia's credibility. And even though it may be wrong-headed to talk about such a universal good as nuclear arms reduction in terms of winners and losers, this was undoubtedly a coup for the Obama administration.