One of the remarkable features of the first personal meeting between presidents Obama and Medvedev was that it didn't turn personal. Mindful of the "looking-in-the-eye-sensing-the-soul" trap, both leaders were all business. If by any chance their conversation was held in Russian, they would have definitely addressed each other "на вы", rather than "на ты." During their brief joint appearance before the media, no "Baracks" or "Dmitrys" were exchanged. Instead, Obama was calling Medvedev "president Medvedev" (four times), whereas Medvedev was calling Obama "president Obama" (three times) or "president of the United States" (twice).
But the maturity of the two young presidents — or savvy of their foreign policy advisers, for that matter — extended well beyond the communication styles. It was reflected, first and foremost, in their ability to address the most crucial, fateful, and time-sensitive aspect of U.S.-Russia relations: the renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), expiring on December 5. Obama and Medvedev instructed their respective negotiation teams to get started immediately and to deliver a progress report by July, apparently concurrently with Obama's planned visit to Moscow.
The sense of urgency surrounding the issue was highlighted by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lugar pointed out that for the Senate to ratify a new treaty before December 5, it should be submitted to Congress by early fall, to allow for hearings, debate and a floor vote. But, Lugar cautions, to clear the necessary bureaucratic processing, the treaty itself will have to be signed no later than early August. This is what Lugar calls "the real deadline."
(Following Lugar's logic, it would appear that should the START negotiations proceed without delays, the real purpose of Obama's visit to Moscow (presumably in late July) will be signing of the new treaty.)
Reminding that it took nine months for the 2003 Moscow Treaty— the last arms control agreement signed by Russia and the United States — to proceed from submission to ratification, Lugar urges president Obama to stay focused and not get distracted:
President Obama must carefully set priorities and pick a limited set of U.S. goals in the negotiations. The primary goal should be to solidify the START verification regime and to maintain legally binding commitments on both sides in the Moscow Treaty. To lead is to choose, and the president and Secretary of State Clinton must resist calls to load the negotiations agenda with objectives that, while desirable, would slow down the talks and threaten the tight timetable.
Some outsiders have urged the administration to aim high by seeking to negotiate even lower strategic-nuclear-weapons levels, to devise a structure to address tactical nuclear weapons, establish a framework of cooperation—rather than confrontation—over missile defense, and break the current stalemate over reductions in conventional forces in Europe. These are worthy goals, but first things first: let’s renew the central arms-control agreement between our two countries. Then we’ll be in a better position to tackle these more complicated issues.
Lugar's warning of "some outsiders" is right on target. There are enough people in Washington opposing the "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations. Reluctant to attack the popular START treaty head-on, they prefer to sink the agreement by attaching heavy baggage to it, Iran's nuclear program being the most frequently used dumbbell. Already, the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl argues:
" As U.S. officials readily acknowledge, strategic arms control is of much greater interest to Russia — whose nuclear arsenal is rapidly deteriorating — than it is to the United States. From Washington's perspective, stopping Iran's nuclear program is far more urgent than agreeing on the next incremental reduction in Cold War warheads. Yet Obama essentially consented in his first summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to devote the next four months of U.S.-Russian relations to an intensive effort to complete a new START treaty. No such cooperation on Iran is on the horizon."
In a castle of chimeras Diehl inhabits, non-existing Iranian missiles represent much larger threat to the American national security than thousands of real nuclear warheads in Russia!
Yet Diehl has a point by saying that the Russians are highly motivated to strike the START deal. There are no major disagreements, among Russia's political elites, on the issue, and the conveniently compliant Duma will ratify, in a heartbeat, everything Medvedev will decide to sign.
The U.S. Senate – stuffed with supersized egos and subject to diverse anti-Russian influence — is a completely different animal. The question with respect to START therefore is (using the Post's vocabulary): will Obama be able "to deliver"?