Heather Stetten is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, recently set a September date for bilateral discussions. The goal is to mend ties between the U.S. and Russia, badly frayed by the recent passage of tit – for – tat human rights sanctions, and attempt to put the administration's "reset" of relations with the Kremlin back on track. The White House has already suggested disarmament, Iran, North Korea and Syria as the main topics for the talks.
Yet on each of these fronts, little progress can realistically be expected.
When it comes to arms control, Washington and Moscow appear to have reached the limits of their discussions. Moscow scored a major political victory when the U.S. Senate ratified the "New Start" Treaty back in December of 2010, thereby enshrining significant bilateral arms reductions in a formula favorable to the Russian side. But nuclear weaponry remains Russia's geopolitical insurance policy, as well as an important source of national pride. So while new arms control negotiations between the two countries appear to be in the offing, Russia will likely be slow to compromise – and even slower to make meaningful concessions. Indeed, it's far from clear that the Kremlin is actually in compliance with New Start.
Iran, too, represents something of an impasse. Publicly, officials in Moscow express their concern over Iran's nuclear program, and maintain – like their American and European counterparts – that Iran's ayatollahs cannot be allowed to "go nuclear." But Russia enjoys the influence it wields over the Islamic Republic, and the two countries share significant strategic interests. Moreover, Iran's influence in the Muslim world, and Russia's own growing Muslim population, has convinced the Kremlin of the prudence of getting close to Tehran and of maintaining those ties, despite Washington's entreaties.
Nor are Obama and Putin likely to come to an agreement on Syria or North Korea. Russia publicly claims a policy of non – interference toward both (even as it provides the Assad regime with political assistance and military materiel). Russia's approach is driven by a desire to keep predictable people in power, and by doing so better manipulate the international environment.
Human rights discussions and pro – democracy forces are anathema to this vision. As such, Mr. Putin is likely to evade tough questions about Russia's current, unhelpful policy in those places and counsel a gradual response that ends up preserving the current status quo in both Damascus and Pyongyang.
So for all of their good intentions, the coming negotiations are likely to fall flat, because they represent a basic misunderstanding of the reasoning of the Russian state. And because they do, they are only likely to heighten tensions and shorten tempers.
Things might be different, however, if America begins to shift the conversation toward topics where real ground can be covered. Russia's recent accession to the World Trade Organization, and the subsequent establishment of Permanent Normalized Trade Relations between the U.S. and Russia, has laid the groundwork for a serious bilateral dialogue on economic issues. Moscow and Washington also have made quiet progress on a mutual understanding of behavior in cyberspace, creating an important convergence in an emerging medium of conflict. And the Chechen links of the bombers behind the recent Boston Marathon tragedy has helped shed light on Russia's losing struggle with radical Islam and made clear why the West needs to engage Moscow on the subject.
If they begin to delve into those areas, Obama and his advisors just might be able to breathe new life into their ailing "reset." If they don't, September's talks are liable to look like more of the same.