Reset to Russian-U.S. Relations: Lisbon Edition

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This weekend, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will meet in Lisbon, Portugal, as part of an attempt to "reset" relations between the two nations. This weekend's talk is the first summit-level meeting of the NATO-Russia Council since the 2008 Georgia conflict. That conflict caused U.S.-Russian relations to dip to levels unseen in the post-Cold War era.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters that the meeting underscores how far the two countries have come since 2008. He also pointed to the ways the Russian reset has helped U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iran and Europe.

But Obama may come to the meeting feeling slightly unsettled after a week's worth of disappointments surrounding the New START treaty. On Tuesday, Sen. Jon Kyl, the Senate Minority Whip, said there wasn't time in the lame-duck session to consider the treaty. Today, 10 incoming GOP senators wrote a letter to Harry Reid demanding they have a say on the new treaty after the new year. Since many have pointed to the New START treaty as an integral part of the relationship reset (which originally launched with an unfortunately mistranslated "reset" button being presented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the administration's early days), an indefinite delay on ratification will likely cause problems for the administration.

In moving towards a mutual "reset" in relations, Obama and Medvedev also exposed their respective right flanks domestically. "If New START is eventually rejected by the Senate, I think it will have severe negative consequences for both leaders," said Dimitri Simes, a Russian expert and president of the Nixon Center in Washington.

"Such a defeat will obviously deal a blow to Obama's credibility not only in the eyes of Russia, but also in the eyes of much of the world," Simes said. "It will likewise prove unpleasant for Medvedev, who to a large degree has linked his political fortunes and strategic legitimacy on his special relationship with Obama and the reset in U.S.-Russian relations."

With Russian elections approaching in 2012, strongman and former President Vladimir Putin could use a high-profile defeat of New START to whip up anti-Western nationalism and belittle Medvedev's pro-Western outreach.

"To the degree there is a gap between the approaches of Medvedev and Putin, the failure to ratify New START will likely be seen domestically as a blow to Medvedev and a boon to Putin and the hardliners," said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a director of the Brookings Institution's Arms Control Initiative.

Read the full story from National Journal's James Kitfield

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Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation. A former Slate editorial assistant, she also previously wrote for and produced the Atlantic's International Channel.

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