Obama's First U.S.-Russian Summit Yields Progress

Obama and Medvedev agreed to reduce their country's nuclear arsenals.

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No one expected great progress from the first U.S.-Russian summit of Barack Obama's presidency. Relations between the two Cold War rivals have lately become so badly poisoned that it seems as if it must have been more than eight years ago that George W. Bush looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and "got a sense of his soul." And, indeed, Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, made no concrete progress on the most difficult issues that divide them: NATO enlargement and the U.S. missile defense system in Europe. And the fundamental dispute over whether the United States should be advancing its political and military ties with countries in Russia's traditional sphere of influence remains as intractable as ever.

In that context, though, the progress that was made on other fronts has to count as an unexpected success. Obama and Medvedev agreed to significantly reduce their countries' nuclear arsenals, and Russia agreed to allow overflights of U.S. equipment to Afghanistan. "They haven't resolved the more contentious issues, but what we've seen is that the more contentious issues aren't getting in the way of pursuing cooperation in other areas," says James M. Goldgeier, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The summit's results also appear to show that Obama's conciliatory approach to foreign policy can pay dividends. Both big agreements entailed Russian concessions. Russia wanted to reduce the number of warheads even more and is lukewarm about helping out in Afghanistan. But Obama got these concessions without offering anything in return (at least publicly) on NATO or missile defense. He even pointedly criticized Russian interference in Georgia and Ukraine and defended the right of any country to join NATO.

How did he get away with that? Part of it was massaging egos, by treating Russia as a superpower, says Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official and a fellow at the Center for American Progress. There are also signals that the Obama administration may look at changing the missile defense system to avoid placing facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, where the proximity to Russia seemed provocative to Moscow. And the United States has gently scaled back its NATO expansion ambitions. That appears to have given Medvedev the space to be somewhat more conciliatory himself.

Still, no one is pretending that America and Russia will be close allies soon. Obama called on Russians to reject "zero-sum thinking," in which any U.S. gain is seen as a loss for Russia. Russians argue that the Americans are being hypocritical by operating in the same way while publicly saying they don't. "There's still a difference in worldview," Goldgeier says. "As long as they continue to think that way, we're going to differ a great deal on a lot of issues."