The arms-reduction treaty a signature initiative for the president, and it comes comes after a stilted few years of relations with Russia. President Obama took office at a critical moment in U.S./Russia politics, and the START treaty signifies the culmination of the "reset" he has sought.
During the heated battle of the 2008 presidential campaign, another fight escalated overseas: the conflict between Georgia and Russia. Its consequences, and the political tension before the beginning of the Obama administration, are instrumental in understanding the significance of the START dispute now unfolding in the Senate.
On August 7, 2008, South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia, accused Georgia of attacking Tskhinvali, its capital. Meanwhile, Georgia reported bombings of several of its villages.
When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke to an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council a day later, he condemned Georgia's actions in South Ossetia. "We shall not allow our compatriots to be killed with impunity," he said. "Those who are responsible for that will be duly punished." Russia initiated air attacks in Georgia, and sent troops to South Ossetia to fight Georgian forces in Tskhinvali.
About a week later, President George Bush denounced Russia's hostility, accusing the country of "bullying and intimidation."
"In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century," Bush said. "The United States has supported these efforts. Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions."
The Russia-Georgia conflict wasn't the only reason for tepid U.S.-Russian relations at the start of President Obama's term. Before August of 2008, Bush had given strong support to future NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a move that elicited much resentment from many Russians. But many analysts say the Georgia conflict marked the greatest dip in U.S.-Russian relations of the post-Cold War period.
So in March of 2009, the administration made its first advances toward alleviating the tense relations. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a gift--a "reset" button, intended as a droll symbol of a fresh beginning.
But the meaning was lost on the Russians--literally. The button was supposed to have the Russian word for "reset" written on it. It didn't.
"We worked hard to get the right Russian word," Clinton told Lavrov. "Do you think we got it?"
"You got it wrong," Lavrov replied, "The word actually means "overcharge."
"We won't let you do that to us," Clinton said laughing.
Luckily, Obama's policy moves since then haven't been lost in translation. He pursued a stronger relationship with Russia partially for his own benefit , knowing he would need Russian support for the war in Afghanistan, counterterrorism tactics, nuclear non-proliferation and in strangling the Iranian nuclear program.
In 2009, he secured an agreement that permits an average of two U.S. planes per day to fly over Russia to Afghanistan, carrying troops and supplies. And he convinced Russia to support U.S. sanctions against Iran. The U.S. also agreed to get rid of an amount of weapons-grade plutonium equal to 17,000 nuclear warheads.
During his remarks at the German Marshall Fund in June, Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke of how far the relationship between the two countries had come.
"I was with Secretary Clinton in Moscow in October when the headlines were 'Russia Rebuffs U.S. on Sanctions,'" he said. "We have seen a real change in the Russian attitude."
Now, the administration's two years of advancement work hang in the balance.
"If [New START] doesn't pass, then it really hurts the reset quite a bit," says James M. Goldgeier, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
If Obama isn't able to deliver on lowering the levels of nuclear weapons, something that's very important to the Russians because of constrained resources, it may gravely affect the relationship. "It's very difficult for the Russians to understand why the Senate would vote against the treaty," he says, explaining that the treaty has the support of the Pentagon and bipartisan support in the Senate.
Sen. Jon Kyl said this week he doesn't think there will be time in the lame-duck session to vote on START. Republicans have asked for a full record of the administration's negotiations with Russia, and several incoming GOP senators have demanded a chance to review and vote on the treaty in January. But Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have all but promised a vote this session, and if Kyl mobilizes strong GOP opposition, a failed vote could damage the treaty's ultimate chances.
President Obama's Russia policy has served as one of the administration's most successful foreign policy narratives over the last two years. "But for that to continue to be successful, he must be able to show that he can deliver on his side, just as he will expect Russians to continue delivering on their side," Goldgeier explains.
The events of last week put the last two years in jeopardy. If New START isn't ratified, the next reset button may need to be much bigger and more powerful than before.
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