By M K Bhadrakumar
That the "reset" in United States-Russia ties is in the doldrums would be stating the obvious. What is not so apparent is how little was actually needed to disorient the "reset". The enzymes are no more working properly. The food that the two dieticians - presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev - prescribed is not being absorbed and is either excreted or about to cause indigestion.
Signs that not all is well are accumulating. In a move reminiscent of the Cold War era, Washington last month put on visa "blacklist" some 60 Russian officials it unilaterally implicated in the untimely death of a lawyer who worked for an American law firm in Moscow while in Russian police custody in 2009.
The Russian Foreign Ministry threatened retaliation. This was followed by a media "leak" in Washington alleging the involvement of Russian intelligence in a bombing incident in the American embassy in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
On Friday, the US Senate passed a vitriolic resolution reiterating Washington's demand that Moscow must vacate Russian military presence in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and patch up with Tbilisi. Moscow weighed in the implications and responded rhetorically. The Foreign Ministry said:
''The new resolution on Georgia produces the impression of a worn-out record. It contains the entire set of cliches and stereotypes… There is not a single Russian soldier on the territory of Georgia. In the region there are Russian military contingents, but they are stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the states Russia recognized as sovereign… claims that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are occupied by the Russian Federation have no factual or legal basis, and the US senators’ allegations merely attest to either their illiteracy in the realm of international law, or complete disregard of the real facts.Russia is putting on a brave face that all this is the shenanigans of Americans with a Cold War mindset and has nothing to do with Obama. But it seems Washington is muddying the waters for US-Russian relationship. Maybe, the US won't mind a bit of a downturn in ties with Russia in the run-up to deployments of its missile defense system (ABM) in the Black Sea region, which is anyway going to be a bitter pill for Moscow to swallow.
All this convincingly shows that the resolution is nothing more than a public relations exercise.''
The dieticians consulted each other on Wednesday when Medvedev dialed Obama. Medvedev's need is greater than Obama's, as the decay of the "reset" threatens to become the archetypal symbol of his presidency and that can be unsavory if he makes a bid for another term in the Kremlin. Obama too has a predicament since the US' relations with Russia is one area where he claims foreign policy success. But where he scores over Medvedev is his awareness that the "reset" with Russia is peripheral to his re-election bid, where the clincher is going to be his record in healing the American economy.
The "imbalance" surfaces in the different versions of what transpired during Wednesday's phone call. The Kremlin says there was a "detailed discussion on the negotiation process" for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and it goes on to express satisfaction that the "momentum from both sides has been conducive to making significant progress in the negotiations".
In a piece of masterly drafting, the Kremlin statement observed, "In this regard, it was stressed that the challenge of assuring Russia's WTO membership by the end of 2011 seems entirely realistic. The two leaders exchanged opinions on further steps to accelerate and coordinate efforts in this direction." The statement sought to convey that the "reset" is working and Obama assured that Russia's WTO membership by Christmas is a done thing.
Curiously, however, Xinhua news agency preferred to use the White House version in its report. Indeed, the White House version projected that Medvedev called up Obama to wish him a happy 50th birthday and thereafter discussed "Russia's WTO accession negotiations".
It added that the two leaders "noted the significant progress" on this issue lately and that Obama stressed the need for Russia to "work with other WTO members to close out the last remaining issues and bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion by the end of this year".
Hereby hangs a tale. Obama surely knows that "other WTO members" includes Georgia, and that Tbilisi (egged on by the US cold warriors, no doubt) won't budge unless the two breakaway regions are returned to it. He also knows that Georgia is the only country that is blocking Russia's WTO membership.
Thus, Obama's advice to Medvedev is, in essence, to heed the US Senate resolution and bend to Tbilisi's demand. He is incapable or unwilling (or both) to confront the Republican-dominated senate.
Moscow has grasped Obama's advice. Speaking to Russian and Georgian media in Moscow on Thursday, Medvedev reacted: "Georgia has a separate position on the matter. We respect Georgia if its position stems from the WTO's aims. We are ready to discuss trade, preferences, customs regimes."
However, Moscow won't accept any attempts to change the political realities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "We will not agree to it, and in such a case even the WTO will not be the price to pay."
Interestingly, in a separate interview with Itar-Tass, Obama also advised Russia to concentrate on economics rather than politics. "We have been extraordinarily successful partners in moving toward reset. Now, moving forward, I think the key is economics."
And Obama rendered this practical advice to Medvedev within 48 hours of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's characterization of the US as a "parasite" on the world economy.
To be sure, Obama would like Russia to open up its big market for American companies to do business and generate jobs in the US economy. He has heard that Goldman Sachs estimates that the best place on the planet to put money in the current circumstances is Russia and that even within the gang of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), Ivan is the glamour boy - outstripping even Li.
However, in the Russian scheme of things, economics is always chaperoned by good politics. The deployment of the ABM in the Black Sea region and the Caucasus is no small matter for Russia's security. The clouds on the horizon are getting thicker.
The proposed ABM deployments do not threaten Russia's strategic forces - certainly, not Russia's Iskander-M missiles. But then, the US plans to develop new interceptor missiles by 2015-2016. And they would have the capability to intercept targets at up to 1,500 kilometers and to "kill" inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that have a launch range of up to 6,000 kilometers.
They could pose problems for Russia's missile units of the Strategic Missile Forces deployed in the European part of Russia. The point is, these ICBMs will be "unable to complete acceleration, to jettison the stages, to separate warheads and to launch the means for penetration" through the ABM barrier, as an analyst of Argumenty Nedeli noted recently.
Equally, Russia has concerns about the ABM radar stations and the work that the US is doing to develop warheads with multiple interceptors.
Admittedly, Russian ICBMs directed at the US via the North Pole won't be as much vulnerable since the "interceptors will have to catch up with them from an inconvenient angle". On balance, to quote the Russian analyst, "There are no [ABM] interceptors that can catch up with intercontinental ballistic missiles today and there will be no such interceptors tomorrow. But they may appear the day after tomorrow."
Washington seems to have finally understood that the Russian leadership has a unified stance on the issue - and there is little to choose between Medvedev and Putin.
These are mean times. Hardly a fortnight passed since racy Moscow girls vowed to strip for Putin. Now, three glamorous girls have come out in equally risque support of Medvedev. In a video released on Monday, two girls dressed in stilettos strolled through a Moscow park chanting, "We are from the 'Medvedev, Our President' group. Call us 'Medvedev Girls'. We are ready to do anything for Dmitry Medvedev."
Then, three young women stripped down to bikinis on a chilly Thursday in central Moscow in support of Medvedev and his anti-beer drive. Reuters reported: "Encircled by cameras and photographers, they invited gawking onlookers to pour out their beer into buckets, stripping off an item of clothing when the alcohol sloshed up to marks drawn on the side." Western media have gone berserk lampooning Russia's political system.
It is unclear who is doing all this while claiming it is a grassroots movement on Russia's top social networking site Vkontakte. Thoughtful Russians have begun to suspect that gorgeous Russian girls are being deployed, like the ABM in the Black Sea, by a "third party" with "roots outside Russia" in an attempt to "trigger a conflict" in Kremlin politics.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.