Since he took office roughly 18 months ago, President Obama has invested considerable time and effort to "re-setting" our relationship with Russia. The logic goes something like this: ties between Moscow and Washington had become dangerously frayed during the Bush Administration, so it was imperative that the new President and his team try to reassure their Russian counterparts, while looking for ways to decrease tensions and increase cooperation.
For their troubles, Mr. Obama hasn't received much in return. True, the two countries have concluded a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but the U.S. will make most of the cuts, while Moscow gets to lock-in recent upgrades in its strategic forces. And, on issues ranging from Iran to North Korea, Russian leaders have been less-than-helpful, toning down language and softening sanctions that might embarrass or squeeze rogue regimes.
Indeed, one could argue that the "re-set" relationship actually favors Moscow. Maybe that's why Russian sock puppet (read: President) Dmitry Medvedev was quite happy to join President Obama in last Friday's highly-publicized "burger run" to a D.C. fast food joint. The Russians are more than happy to pal around--and take advantage--of "friends" like Mr. Obama.
Meanwhile, there have been two recent events which remind us that ties between the United States and Russia have never changed (at least, in some respects). Beyond the reset rhetoric, relations continue much as they always have, with the two nations jockeying for position on the world stage, and eyeing each other suspiciously, as you might expect from two nuclear-armed rivals from the Cold War.
Case in point: recent reports that Moscow will move ahead with plans to sell S-300 air defense hardware to Iran. As we recently noted, the advanced anti-air and anti-missile system represents a game-changer in the Persian Gulf region, potentially deterring Israeli attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. If the Israelis don't mount a preemptive raid on Tehran's nuclear program, the Iranians are essentially home free, and it's just a matter of time before Iran joins the club, and begins sharing weapons technology with terrorist groups and other outlaw states.
But those geopolitical realities don't bother Mr. Medvedev and his political master, Vladimir Putin. On Monday, President Medvedev confirmed Russian plans to continue the development and export of advanced weapons, noting their benefit for his nation's economy. While Russian officials have never confirmed plans to conclude the S-300 deal, Medvedev's comments make it clear that Moscow is looking for customers who can afford state-of-the-art military weaponry, a clientele that clearly includes Iran.
If Russia was truly concerned about Tehran's intentions and the wider issue of nuclear proliferation, they would cancel the S-300 sale, pure and simple. Instead, the deal remains in limbo, as Moscow searches for the right time to deliver the missile batteries. Russia's refusal to do that illustrates the deep gulf that still exists--and likely, will always exist--in its bi-lateral ties with the United States. No wonder the subject never came up during last Friday's confab between Mr. Medvedev and President Obama.
And, not long after the two leader said their good-byes at the G-20 Summit , there was another reminder of our actual relationship with Moscow. Capping years of painstaking surveillance, the FBI rolled up a Russian spy ring on American soil, arresting 11 accused agents in locations that included northern Virginia, suburban New Jersey and the Boston area. The operatives were described as "deep cover" agents, living as American couples under carefully constructed identities, and assigned to gather information from members of the U.S. "policy elite."
The spy ring's "success" is subject to debate. As The New York Times reports, the Russian agents were never caught passing classified information, and much of the material they actually gathered could be described as political gossip and economic information readily accessible over the internet. In that regard, the decade-long espionage program might be described as something of a bust.
Or was it? By definition, deep cover agents remain in place for years, often receiving no assignment (or only menial tasks) until their services are needed. The Russians obviously believed the spies had long-term potential, given the time and money invested in establishing them as "ordinary" Americans. And, we still don't know the full extent of what the spy ring collected. Suffice it to say, the "gossip" was sensitive enough to prompt a long-term FBI investigation and a subsequent indictment from the Justice Department. It's also worth noting that, according to federal affidavits, the Russian operatives went to extraordinary lengths to pass their "routine" information.
Additionally, the spies apprehended over the weekend may represent just the tip of iceberg. A former high-ranking KGB officer (who defected to the west in the mid-80s) says it is common practice for Russia to assign as many as 60 deep cover agents to an important target like the U.S. We can only speculate about the other operatives who are living quietly in our country, awaiting orders from Moscow.
The espionage case illustrates that some things will never change in U.S.-Russian relations. While the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, America remains a key target for Moscow's intelligence agencies, and we still devote billions of dollars to collect data on Russia. Likewise, the U.S. is also active on the global arms markets, making deals that sometimes infuriate the Russians. For example, Moscow isn't very happy about U.S. plans to help Poland modernize its military. But there is a difference in these transactions, as we've noted in the past. Unlike Iran, the Poles won't use Patriot missiles to protect a nuclear weapons program, or share that technology with terrorist groups or rogue states.
Given these realities, one is tempted to say that key aspects of the Russian relationship can never be reset. And there's nothing wrong with that; as long as both nations have differing agendas (and nuclear weapons that can be targeted against the other), our ties will always be strained, to some degree. So maybe what's needed is a simple acknowledgment; that Moscow will never be our best friend on the world stage, and Russian will always view us with suspicion and distrust. If nothing else, it will make it easier to explain periodic revelations that one side has been caught spying on the other.