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Top U.S. Diplomat Tells Congress 'Reset Button With Russia Has Been Pushed'

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Gordon told the committee that the summit also produced commitments from both sides to work together against violent extremists, and to counter transnational threats from narcotics trafficking and piracy.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Gordon told the committee that the summit also produced commitments from both sides to work together against violent extremists, and to counter transnational threats from narcotics trafficking and piracy.

WASHINGTON -- At a Congressional hearing in Washington this week, legislators heard from the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs that the United States and Russia have begun cooperating in several areas of common interest -- from nuclear nonproliferation to narcotics trafficking.

Philip H. Gordon told the House Subcommittee on Europe that President Barack Obama's six-month-old pledge to work with Russia on issues of shared concern has already begun to pay off.

Gordon's July 28 appearance before the subcommittee was something of a report card on the recent Moscow summit between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but it was also a larger progress report on nearly six months of reenergized diplomacy aimed at turning the page on past dealings between Washington and Moscow.

Before touting what he called the "significant achievements" that have been gained, Gordon took a quick look back, characterizing the state of affairs between the two countries at the start of Obama's tenure as "difficult and deteriorating."

Obama's call back in December for a "resetting" of relations, based on the belief that cooperation is possible on issues of shared concern, he said, has already begun to be realized.

Gordon said that "the United States and Russia have gone far towards achieving this fresh start. Not only have our leaders made progress in improving the tone of our relations, and in building good will between our two countries, but as the Moscow summit demonstrates, we have succeeded in translating the rhetoric about potential collaboration into concrete actions that are fundamental to the security and prosperity of both of our countries."

Cooperation Paying Dividends

Among those concrete actions is a joint statement of understanding signed by Obama and Medvedev for an agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in December. The new agreement commits both parties to a new, legally-binding treaty that will reduce each side's nuclear warheads and delivery systems by at least one-third more than START called for.

Presidents Obama (left) and Medvedev agreed on specific areas of cooperation, Gordon said.
Gordon told the committee that the summit also produced commitments from both sides to work together against violent extremists, and to counter transnational threats from narcotics trafficking and piracy.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who also traveled to Moscow, has signed a work plan with his counterpart, Nikolai Makarov, to resume military-to-military cooperation in areas like counterterrorism. Twenty military exchanges are planned for the remainder of 2009.

And in what Gordon called "an excellent example" of how Washington's new approach to Russia is paying dividends, Moscow has agreed to allow the United States to transport military troops and supplies across its territory in support of the NATO-led effort in Afghanistan.

Gordon told the committee members that in addition to giving the U.S. forces flexibility in supply routes, the new arrangement could save the U.S. government some $133 million in fuel and other transportation costs annually.

"The significance of this contribution to our effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, which is also of strategic benefit to Russia, should not be understated," Gordon said. "I think it's an excellent example of how the two countries can cooperate in the pursuit of common interest without any quid-pro-quos."

Missile Questions

One of the areas of cooperation agreed to in Moscow was a joint threat assessment of potential ballistic-missile threats, including from Iran and North Korea, and Gordon said a U.S. team left for Moscow this week to begin talks.

That prompted some members of the committee to ask about Moscow's continued opposition to U.S. plans to build an antimissile radar system in the Czech Republic and Poland, which remain on the drawing board. Moscow's anger over what it perceives as a threat aimed its way remains as strong as when it was first announced during former President George W. Bush's administration.

Obama is currently reviewing the missile-defense plan and Gordon told members of the committee that the joint threat assessment by Washington and Moscow is a critical part of that review. He said future decisions would be driven by the level of perceived threat to U.S. allies and the existing capacity to deal with that threat, not Russia's wishes.

But he added that the U.S. team of analysts is hoping that by sharing intelligence with their Russian counterparts, they can persuade Moscow to see the case for missile defense.

Agreeing To Disagree

Even before Gordon had delivered his testimony, a member of the committee in his opening remarks had neatly summarized the dilemma the United States faces in its new Russia strategy.

Representative Albio Sires (Democrat, New Jersey) said on a recent congressional fact-finding trip to Russia, he had met members of the government's "old guard that seemed to be a throwback to the Cold War, and members of "a new guard that seemed more receptive" to the democratic ideas that Sires and the rest of the delegation were raising in discussions.

It was a member of that "old guard," he said, who eagerly confirmed to the congressional group that yes, in fact, a recent poll showed that two-thirds of Russians do not like or trust Americans.

"I don't know how you deal with that, in negotiations, because who's going to set the direction for Russia in the future?" Sires asked.

"We also talked about the problems with journalists, the lack of human rights, the shutting down of TV stations. Is that the new Russia? Or is that the pressure from the old Russia, advancing ahead? I think we have our work cut out for us."

Gordon said the United States had made a strategic decision to work with Russia on issues the two countries can agree on, and continue to oppose Moscow on the issues it doesn't. The challenges of doing so are obvious, he added.

"Let me be clear that we have no illusions that the reset of relations with Russia will be easy, or that we will not continue to have differences with Russia," Gordon said.

Democratic Principles

"Nonetheless, we're confident that the United States and Russia can work together where our interests coincide, while at the same time seeking to narrow our differences in an open, and mutually respective way, be it on questions of human rights or Russia's unlawful recognition of Georgia's separatist regions."

On the last point, he told the committee that in Moscow, Obama was "unequivocal in his message."

"Our reset in the bilateral relationship will not come at the expense of our friends and our allies," Gordon added. "More than in words, but in actions, we demonstrated our commitment to the territorial and independence of Russia's neighbors, including Ukraine and Georgia."

In particular, Gordon said the United States' new approach does not require it abandon its democratic principles or European allies, especially those on Russia's border who fear its resurgent "sphere of influence" policy toward them.

He acknowledge that some former Soviet Union countries "remain nervous" about Russia and said the United States has tried to "provide reassurance and tell them the 'reset' with Russia is not at their expense."

It is a "rock solid principle" of the United States that democracies like Georgia and Ukraine should be able to choose their own security alliances, he said.

Human Rights Concerns

In response to a question from a committee member as to whether he felt ordinary Russians are troubled by the amount of human rights violations -- including murders of journalists and human rights activists -- that goes on with impunity in Russia, Gordon said he "[knew] plenty of Russians who are troubled by the lack of prosecution" and "who do not want to live in a place where people, journalists, can be murdered on the street or kidnapped without any consequences."

"I know a number of Russians who are deeply troubled by that, I can tell you that we met with a number of them in Moscow, the president raised this issue of the need for rule of law and an independent judiciary, free press, and respect for human rights," Gordon said.

"He raised it in his private meetings with the Russia leadership, and he spoke about it publicly when he met with opposition leaders, when he met with civil society groups including human rights advocates, and when he spoke to the next generation of Russian [leaders] at the New Economics School. So it is absolutely something that we are very much focused on and raise at every possible level with the Russian government."

To insure that the commitments to date translate into action, a bilateral presidential commission has been created that will be chaired by Obama and Medvedev and coordinated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Gordon said the commission will include working groups on nuclear energy and nuclear security, arms control and international security, foreign policy and fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, business development and economic relations, energy, the environment, civil society, and public health.