- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Read the front pages of America’s most famous newspapers, and you’ll come away convinced that the big-picture significance of the new nuclear agreement signed by the presidents of the United States and Russia is that it is strictly a paint-by-the-numbers masterpiece.

President Obama and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to cut their nations’ nuclear arsenals “by as much as a third,” The Washington Post reported Tuesday. Or cut their arsenals “by at least one-quarter,” the New York Times reported the same morning.

Actually, the fission among nuclear number crunchers can grow wider upon closer inspection. The numbers in the 2002 Moscow treaty, set to expire in December, are that each country could have 1,700 to 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads. Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev just agreed to set the new range at 1,500 to 1,675. So, crunchologists could choose to sniff that the new ceiling is just 25 warheads less than the old floor of 1,700.

However, the real big picture of nuclear-age diplomacy isn’t always painted by the numbers. The most visionary significance of the agreement the two presidents reached in Moscow is less about nuclear numbers and more about the fact that the leaders have put in motion a series of efforts and mechanisms designed to reverse the superpower chill and contention that developed in the Bush-Putin years.

In their press conference, both presidents spoke warmly about their relationship and frankly about their areas of agreement and concern. Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev said they were determined to end the “drift” in their countries’ relations and created a U.S.-Russia “presidential commission” on cooperation. (“Presidential” here could translate as no prime-minister involvement.)

Mr. Obama has carefully changed the way the United States deals with Russia’s concerns about the George W. Bush-era plan for a missile-defense system based in Eastern Europe. Mr. Bush said all decisions were set in concrete. Mr. Obama says he is reviewing the plans and will consult with Russia rather than inform Russia.

Among the most important agreements reached was the reopening of military-to-military dealings that had been suspended after the Russian invasion of Georgia. Military cooperation is vital in many areas, from the securing of nuclear materials so they never fall into terrorists’ hands to the long-urgent need to assure that neither superpower erroneously concludes it is under nuclear attack.

“I am particularly pleased with the re-establishment of our military-to-military relations,” said former Sen. Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “This channel is critical for identifying new ways to increase launch warning and decision time, develop cooperative early-warning and missile-defense systems and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategies.”

Summits rarely turn out to be good places for building friendships. Yet that never stops the summiteers from trying. President Bush started out determined to make friends with then-President Vladimir Putin. In their joint media moments in those years, America’s president kept calling Russia’s president “Vladimir.” Russia’s president kept calling America’s president “Mr. President.”

Shortly before the contention hit the fan, Mr. Bush famously told us he had looked deeply into Mr. Putin’s eyes and had seen his soul.

Today, some Russia watchers in governments, think tanks and the media are not sure whether, if Mr. Obama had looked deeply into Mr. Medvedev’s eyes, he would have seen Mr. Putin’s fingertips — a puppet master making his creation nod, shake hands, sign pacts.

However, less cynical experts think they see in Mr. Medvedev a president who is growing in confidence and competence even as he is careful to never say an unkind word about the prime minister who made him what he is today — and doubtless dominates his policy preferences.

Mr. Obama was careful to leave no doubt he was dealing with the latter — a fact of which Russia’s president was neither unmindful nor unappreciative.

“Personal relationships are very important,” Mr. Medvedev told reporters. “And when the relationship between the governments and personal relationship are on the same level, positive — that’s always good for the relationship between countries.”

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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