The good relationship between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev hasn’t been enough to get the U.S. to lift controversial trade restrictions. Source: AFP / East News
It was their farewell meeting, laden with warm sentiments and mutual regard. On March 26 in Seoul, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told US President Barack Obama that “the past three years have probably been the best three years in the history of Russian-American relations during the past decade”. The words had a sincere ring to them and the two leaders parted as friends. Obama grew sentimental and even handed to his Russian counterpart an envelope with a personal handwritten note. Outgoing American presidents, by tradition, leave such notes to their successors before leaving the White House. The messages usually contain advice. But Obama was not giving advice to Medvedev. In his small elegant hand, he thanked his friend Dmitry for confidence that enabled them to solve many problems together. Medvedev was so moved that he could not help showing the note to several members of his delegation.
And yet that idyllic scene might never have taken place. Medvedev’s four-year term in foreign policy began in a way that had every chance of being the worst period in Russia’s relations with the West since the end of the Cold War. The reason was the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008. The story goes that Medvedev’s decision to launch an operation to coerce George into peace and then to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was almost unanimously backed by the members of the Russian government and of the Kremlin administration.
But the issue of whether, by recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow would lose the rest of Georgia for a long period, if not forever, was not at the top of the agenda during that critical August. The Kremlin and its main incumbent at the time were preoccupied with another problem, that is the very real chance of finding himself in the same company with such Western bogeymen as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Chen Il. “Medvedev expected isolation. Morally he was resigned to the fact that the echoes of the Georgian war would haunt him throughout the four years of his presidency,” people close to the Russian president recall.
His fears were not ungrounded. There were calls at the EU for sanctions against Moscow, the most vocal of which came from Poland and the Baltic states. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who flew to Sochi to meet Medvedev on August 15, 2008, did not mince words when she told the Russian president in their one-on-one meeting that that Berlin will not support the Russian-Georgian war. “Merkel at the time said in so many words that what we (Russia–Vlast) had done would greatly complicate relations with the European Union. She said she would never support us on the issue,” a participant recalls.
But Medvedev was lucky. At least twice. First, France happened to hold the EU presidency at the time. Its energetic and cynical leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, did not miss the opportunity to act as a broker in settling the Russian-Georgian crisis. He quickly managed to put together a peace plan to which Medvedev and Mikhail Saakashvili signed. If the Czech Republic or Sweden, with which Moscow’s relations were not so close, had held the presidency when the war broke out (both countries succeeded France as EU presidents), things might have turned out differently.
Another stroke of luck for Medvedev was the global financial crisis that underlined the need for economic pragmatism over politics. “In fact Medvedev faced two problems. One was called Georgia and the other the world financial crisis. That set his foreign policy agenda,” says an official close to Medvedev. The crisis upstaged the Georgian story on the world agenda. As early as October 2008 Medvedev, attending a conference on world politics at Evian, France, spoke mostly about measures to stabilise the financial markets and only passingly about the August war.
A month later a Russia-EU summit in Nice convinced Moscow that nobody was going to ostracise it. Sarkozy and Merkel played a key role in bringing about reconciliation with Europe, Kremlin and Russian foreign ministry officials recall. “The Germans did not budge from the European position on the conflict. But Berlin did more than any other country to keep up the dialogue with Russia. This was due to the fact that Germany had the biggest say in EU decisions, especially since Germany’s approach was shared by Paris,” says a Russian diplomat.
People who frequently accompany Medvedev on his foreign trips say that the chemistry between him and Merkel is better than with any other world leader. “They have a very good, warm relationship. It has helped them to reconcile their positions and formulate them clearly on more than one occasion,” a member of the Kremlin Administration told Vlast. Medvedev cherishes these relations. For instance, he personally selected a gift for Merkel’s birthday last year: discs with Russian classics and a cook book. Setting out on his trips around the world, Medvedev makes a point of dropping by in Germany to meet the chancellor.
Sarkozy was sometimes jealous of their friendship. At one point the French leader even began insisting on a meeting in the troika format. Such a meeting was held in October 2010 in Deauville. But even there, after talks and an informal supper, Medvedev and Merkel managed to slip away to a restaurant near the hotel for a one-on-one talk over oysters and champagne. During the oyster summit at Deauville Medvedev announced that he agreed to a Russia-NATO Council summit being held in Lisbon. In the Portuguese capital, he proposed to the US to build a sectoral BMD in Europe together. That caused a sensation. There was a sense that the parties could at long last solve the main problem of recent years.
The presidents of Russia and the US became even closer while working on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). “First, Medvedev is much less anti-American than Putin,” explains a Kremlin official explains. “And then the agenda prompted a pragmatic approach. During the work on START, they would sometimes spend an hour and a half or two hours talking over the telephone.”
“The president was the main negotiator,” Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, who worked at the Foreign Ministry at the time and led the Russian delegation in the START talks with the USA, confirms. “They had more than 15 talks. And the discussion was not on general political matters, but about serious things.” Antonov recalls an episode when Moscow and Washington ran into the problem of exchanging telemetric data on missiles. The US wanted this commitment to be written into the treaty while Russia believed it should not be in the treaty. “Medvedev eventually came up with a solution that satisfied the Americans and enabled us not to cross the red lines. It was not a concession but a diplomatic solution to a problem,” says Antonov says. The compromise, he believes, was the decision to let each party decide for itself what telemetric data, and on what missile launches, it would make available to the partner. Thereby, Russia avoided a commitment to share information on new missile tests (Americans do not test such weapons).
Another feather in Medvedev’s cap, in the deputy minister’s opinion, is the provision in the preamble to START that links strategic offensive arms and defensive arms, i.e. to BMD. That was important for Moscow, which is opposed to an American missile defense system in Europe. The presidents, Antonov recalls, pitched in every time the delegations were on the verge of getting up from the table and going their separate ways.
The relations with the US that improved during the work on START were important for Medvedev after it was signed in Prague in April 2010. Russia suddenly became accommodating towards Washington, even on those issues on which it took a tough stand against the Americans during the Bush administration. In June 2010 it did not just back the UN Security Council Resolution 1929 imposing fresh sanctions on Iran, but undertook not to supply Teheran with S-300 missiles under a contract that had already been signed. On the eve of the adoption of the Iran resolution, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said that the sanctions would not influence Moscow’s plans to ship S-300 missiles to Teheran. When he learned about this, Medvedev, who was in Tashkent at the time, snapped at Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the presence of journalists: “He should have his head cut off.” The president personally issued a denial of Nesterenko’s statement and eight months later Nesterenko was appointed ambassador to Montenegro.
At the Kremlin Moscow’s sudden consent to punish Iran with sanctions is attributed not only to friendship with the US. “We have long taken a fairly tough stand on Iran. But when we were shown reports on secret uranium enrichment plants, we could no longer deny the obvious. When such data come to hand, we feel like idiots protecting a liar,” a source at the Kremlin says.
A different set of motives played out in the Kremlin’s thinking last year when it decided to abstain from voting on the UN Security Council resolution that gave the West a free hand to launch a military operation against Libya. “Why did we abstain and not veto the resolution? Because we realised that it was curtains for Gaddafi. Medvedev had talked with him frequently and there was no doubt in his mind that Gaddafi was out of touch,” an official familiar with how the decision on Libya was taken explains. “Therefore, when the question arose at the height of the Libyan crisis of whether the achievements in relations with the US should be sacrificed for the sake of Tripoli, the decision was taken.” To be sure, he admitted in the same breath that Russia had been ‘cheated a little bit’ over Libya because the resolution was used to cover actions that it did not envisage. “On the other hand, an alternative was to continue to defend cannibals and lose everything,” a source said.
The friendship between Medvedev and Obama withstood another test during the spy scandal in the summer of 2010 when ten Russian illegal agents, including Anna Chapman, were arrested in the US. Moscow, contrary to expectations, instantly admitted that they were its spies. It was an unorthodox move because usually a country disowns its failed spies to the very end. Thanks to this move the scandal quickly died down without causing any harm to the warming relations between the two countries.
The economic outcome of the reset of Russia-US relations was Moscow’s accession to the WTO. Medvedev can claim credit for this historic event. “The WTO accession was a gift to Medvedev from the West and from Obama,” says Nikolai Zlobin, an analyst. “He appreciated Medvedev’s frankness, which helped to build relations realistically.”
But it is also true that the Russia-US friendship did not extend to all spheres. By the end of Medvedev’s presidential term, it had become clear that the problem of the American missile defense in Europe would not be solved. Washington rejected Medvedev’s Lisbon initiative when he proposed to create such a system jointly. And although Obama promised in Seoul in March to be more flexible on the issue once the presidential election was behind him, Moscow is not too sure that the promise will be kept. “The US Senate put into law a ban on the transfer of sensitive information on missile defense to anyone,” a high-ranking Russian diplomat says. They don’t even want to share it with NATO. This was written down when the senators ratified START. Thus, under Putin, Russia and the US are likely to relapse into the habitual mode of mutual mistrust, especially since Putin does not have a special relationship with Obama.
First published in the Kommersant-Vlast magazine.
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