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Working Together Isn't Working

For all the talk of “reset” and “shared interests” and the like, cooperation between the United States and Russia is just not going anywhere.

It is now widely known that the much-touted agreement from the July summit about the transit of lethal cargo to Afghanistan via Russian airspace has produced no real results. There have been only an uncertain number of flights in seven months and both sides blame the other – although Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told RFE/RL that the problems stem from Kazakhstan. The U.S. State Department reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov discussed the matter during a 45-minute conversation on the sidelines of the London conference on Yemen on January 27, a sure sign that things aren't moving smoothly.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, told journalists today that “there is no political problem in this; there is Russia’s natural demand of guaranteeing air transport security.” Not sure what that means. He also admitted that the ground transit of nonlethal equipment to Afghanistan has not been working “at full capacity,” blaming NATO for failing to resolve issues with other transit countries. “As to transit,” Rogozin said, “the problem is not with us.”

My own efforts over the last two weeks to get informed comment on this matter from Rogozin, from the U.S. Defense Department, and from the defense attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have not been successful so far. I keep trying. I can only assume that their unwillingness to talk to me means they don’t have anything to brag about.

What about other aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation? At the July summit, it was agreed to create the Obama-Medvedev Commission, which would have working groups in many areas from culture and mass media, to international security, to economic relations, to nuclear issues, and so on. That commission’s end-of-the-year report makes pretty lame reading. Most of the working groups only met once during the first half year (the working group on Civil Society held its first meeting in Washington this week and you can read RFE/RL’s interview with working group Co-chairman Michael McFaul here).

The working group on military cooperation didn’t meet itself, but coopted the results of the U.S.-Russia Joint General Staff group, which did, and reported “noteworthy progress was made at the talks which focused on identifying new areas for military cooperation.” Good work.

The environment group has “begun exchanging ideas on priority areas of focus.” The counternarcotics group “agreed to initiate an exchange of information” and apparently discussed the drugs problem stemming from Afghanistan – although clearly Russia at least is not satisfied with that situation.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev also agreed to carry out a joint threat assessment, but as far as I can tell, there has been no progress on this question. I haven’t even heard of a meeting or talks, and it seems clear from various public statements that Washington and Moscow are miles apart on assessing the threat from Iran.

One of the areas that is often mentioned as potentially fruitful for cooperation is missile defense. To take just the latest example, Clinton floated the idea in her speech on European security in Paris today. Ever since the Bush administration proposed its missile-defense plans for central Europe, there has been talk of joint missile defense.

And it would seem a start was made on this. In July, Presidents Medvedev and Obama agreed to cooperate on monitoring missile launches. Of course, cooperation on missile defense is much more complicated than cooperation on joint missile-launch monitoring and that is much more complicated than, say, overflight rights for military cargo bound for Afghanistan.

And the track record on U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile-launch monitoring is pathetic, to say the least.

I spoke the other day with Victoria Samson, a long-time missile-defense expert and author of the 2007 paper “Prospects For Russian-American Missile Defense Cooperation: Lessons From RAMOS and JDEC.” She told me that the Obama-Medvedev declaration in July on cooperation in monitoring missile launches sounds exactly like a June 2000 declaration between Presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin on the creation of the Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC), which was to provide “an uninterrupted exchange of information on launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.” As Samson’s paper explains in detail, the two sides bickered for a decade on how to implement the project and who would pay the taxes for it.

“They finally got to the point where they had an old Russian schoolhouse outside of Moscow that they had rented and that they were saying was going to be the site of that,” she told me. “But eventually, I think, they realized that it wasn’t going to happen. They stopped paying for it and are letting it go to fallow.”

RAMOS, by the way, stands for the Russian-American Observation Satellite system, which was agreed to in 1997 “to simultaneously create two satellites to share warning of missile attacks.” That project went nowhere and in 2004 was quietly killed by the Pentagon, which issued a statement saying, “We are extremely interested in cooperative efforts with the Russian Federation but we have been concerned about the…RAMOS program.”

Samson tells me that JDEC has not been officially killed yet and she suspects that the Obama-Medvedev declaration in July, rather than being a new initiative as it was sold publicly, was a pledge to revive this dormant effort. She says, however, that there has been no activity on JDEC since July, adding that the Obama administration will submit its budget request to Congress next week and we might be able to tell then whether any funding has been earmarked for this project. Vice President Joe Biden, writing in the “Wall Street Journal” today, wrote at length about plans to increase spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure, but did not mention JDEC or the pledge to cooperate on missile-launch detection.

Samson says the political, military, and technical problems of actual missile-defense cooperation are “orders of magnitude” greater than those associated with mere missile-launch monitoring. Samson says that U.S. efforts to cooperate on missile defense with Germany and Italy have moved very slowly and with great difficulty, so the idea of a similar or even more ambitious project with Russia seems, to say the least, unrealistic.

“It is very frustrating because you would think that something that helps increase security and transparency and confidence [like joint missile-launch monitoring] is sort of a low-risk collaborative measure,” Samson concludes. “It seems it would be a perfect sort of project that the United States and Russia could cooperate on. And so, when we can’t get our acts together on something like that, the whole concept of the United States and Russia cooperating on something as politically difficult as ballistic missile defense, I think, is highly unlikely.”

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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