John Hockenberry for The Takeaway: President Obama and his family touched down in Moscow earlier this morning. The President sat down with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, this is his first full-fledged summit since 2002 when President Bush famously looked into then-President Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. This time around, the White House is stressing other goals: leading with soft power, leading with diplomatic tools in foreign affairs, that’s partly what this meeting is about. And also using leverage with a cooperative arrangement between the U.S. and Russia to affect things in Iran and Afghanistan. To see whether that’s possible we turn now to former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and career diplomat, Thomas Pickering, currently co-chair of the International Crisis Group. Ambassador Pickering, good morning.
Amb. Thomas Pickering: Good morning, John.
John Hockenberry: Let’s talk first about the model that these two leaders apparently are going to be using to make progress on an issue of mutual concern: strategic warheads and strategic missiles and trying to reduce their numbers using the old START, I can’t even remember what that acronym stands for anymore. It comes from the Reagan era. It’s the last arms control…
Amb. Thomas Pickering: Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, John.
John Hockenberry: Right. Arms Reduction Treaty. Exactly. First of all, what do we make of resurrecting START as a way to move forward?
Amb. Thomas Pickering: Actually, this is prolonging START. START runs out on December 5th this year. Without it we’d have no agreement, we’d have no reliability and security would not be enhanced. So the first stage was, let’s prolong START. The second stage was, let’s combine that with improving START and see if we can reduce more below the 2,200-1,700 warheads we agreed to in 1994 in the Moscow treaty. So it’s really a two-stage effort now combined. The general prognosis is they will shoot for somewhere in the area of 1,500, but we don’t know until they announce that. And the hope is that will also result in improving, maybe simplifying, some of the negotiating and some of the complex counting arrangements that take place under START that relate to both warheads and delivery vehicles.
John Hockenberry: Some of the critics of the Obama administration have already described this effort as essentially pulling numbers out of a hat. John Bolton, former U.N. ambassador, had this to say about even getting into the business of reducing strategic nuclear weapons. I wonder if you could react to this:
Recording of John Bolton on The Takeaway: Remember, the Russians don’t have any allies that they protect with their nuclear weapons. We have our NATO allies, we have Japan, Australia and a range of others around the world. Shrinking our nuclear umbrella actually lessens security for many of our friends around the world.
John Hockenberry: Now, Ambassador Pickering, John Bolton would have us believe that the U.S. nuclear weapons right now are viewed by NATO countries and Japan and Australia as a nuclear umbrella that protects them. Is that your view?
Amb. Thomas Pickering: In part it is, but it’s passing strange that John should come up with that argument since he led the work at the Moscow treaty in 1994 to reduce down to 1,900. To some extent, obviously, lower numbers obviously create different sorts of problems, but that was not his argument. The argument I think is fundamentally whether we and the Russians deter each other at lower levels of weapons. And I think the general feeling is that people are reasonably comfortable about this getting down below 1,700. There is now a nuclear posture review going on in the administration to see how some of these particularly difficult questions will be answered over the future. But those who believe, as the President seems to, in moving down to zero, feel there’s a path through this. As we move down in numbers, we move down in numbers that are roughly parallel. At the moment, in terms of total weapons, the Russians have more than we do, so if John is right we should be seeking to find equal numbers of weapons over a longer period of time rather than continuing to permit unequal numbers. That would, in fact, enhance our ability to deter Russia, and that would in fact help us to protect our friends and allies.
John Hockenberry: Ambassador Pickering, a year ago at this time we were weeks away from the crisis over Georgia. The Russians invaded, there was harsh language from the then Bush administration. The U.S. election has occurred, the Russians have withdrawn and that’s very much in the distance. Do you think that President Medvedev benefits from even standing near Barack Obama, who has a huge international profile, way outside of President Medvedev. Does that asymmetry help Obama or hurt him in Russia?
Amb. Thomas Pickering: I think it helps the President. It may help President Medvedev and it may also help Prime Minster Putin, who is a very, very important decision-maker in Russia, perhaps, in the view of many, even more important than President Medvedev. That particular question of who helps who the most is less relevant in my view than what the two can do together. And it appears as if they’re going to do something on nuclear disarmament. Let us hope that they can do something as well on missile defense. Russians have recently said that while missile defense plays a role in making decisions about disarmament, they’re not actually coupling the two in a kind of iron lock so that the United States would either have to give up missile defense or do something else, and in fact we see some serious interest on the Russian part on cooperative missile defense, something that began under the first George Bush and seemingly never really prospered but each side continued to have some sort of latent interest in the issue. The fact that President Obama arriving on the scene with all his popularity puts him in a very strong negotiating position in my view, and in a very strong position to help move Russia along. He will give a critical speech during his visit to Moscow to a wide Russian audience that I think will be one of the key testing points of this particular visit.
John Hockenberry: Finally, I want to get your personal reaction to what I guess I would call the whipsaw of history. You were a prominent diplomat at the time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at odds over the situation in Afghanistan. It’s likely that there may be some official agreement on cooperation, military cooperation, over the situation in Afghanistan. My, how things change.
Amb. Thomas Pickering: I think that’s right. I think that the U.S., interestingly enough, Russia and perhaps others have common interest in Afghanistan. That’s not to see al-Qaida win, not to see the Taliban prosper, to see the government move ahead in a way that’s more broadly accepted than it has been. While we have gotten permission from NATO to send non-military equipment to Afghanistan through the Russian and the associated transportation system in Central Asia, this new effort may well include military lethal equipment that’s currently not there. That would, of course, put us closer together. We have to remember back in 2001 and 2002 when among the first to call President Bush was President Putin who tried to help us establish bases. He thought they would be temporary in Central Asia, to support our efforts in dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. So there has been some history of this, this is not an entirely new effort. But it looks as if it marks a period of getting over what some would call the scratchiness of the Bush-Putin period.
John Hockenberry: Right, and I guess as you say, the takeaway here is, can that cooperation become a real progress engine for regional issues for Iran in particular and of course Afghanistan is already on the table. Ambassador Pickering we’re going to have to go there.
Amb. Thomas Pickering: North Korea, too, John.
John Hockenberry: Of course. Ambassador Thomas Pickering former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and career diplomat.