Why Obama's Moscow Trip May Be Meaningless

Translators were baffled by Vladimir Putin's recent response to President Obama. Leading up to his summit in Moscow, Obama had announced that the Russian premier had one foot in the old way and one foot in the new. "We cannot stand v raskoryachku," Putin replied in a steely voice. Everyone understands that this rarely used idiom refers to an awkward position, but not even native speakers can visualize it. For some, it evoked nonconsensual sex. For others, it suggested bowleggedness. The best translation was posted by a BBC Russian Service producer on Facebook: "one leg here, one leg there, with the bottom asking for trouble."

The mysterious elocution came in handy for reporters wondering what to write about on the eve of Obama's visit to Russia, as they tried to decipher the true nature of U.S.-Russian relations. While the countries gave every appearance of concordance at Monday's meeting, the reality is that they are v raskoryachku—neither friends nor enemies. In truth, they hardly have a relationship at all.

How did we get here? Last winter, Joe Biden offered to reset relations with Russia, and it looked for a while as though, by the time Obama arrived, everything would be hunky-dory. In May, the reset agenda included cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, addressing piracy in Somalia, and Russia's expedited entry into the WTO.

But the weeks preceding Obama's visit where marked by one setback after another. Iran's combustible election demonstrated how far apart Russia and the U.S. are on democracy and populist, color-themed revolutions: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was the first world leader to receive Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his dubious victory. Soon thereafter, Russia did everything to soften the resolution on Iran at last month's G8 foreign ministers' meeting in Italy.

Then Kyrgyzstan announced that it will allow the U.S. armed forces to keep a military base on its territory, despite assurances it had given to Moscow that the base would be shuttered in exchange for Russian loans. This move put Moscow in a position that Putin might have called v raskoryachku, with anonymous foreign ministry officials fuming in newspaper interviews and Medvedev trying to save face by saying that the deal had been negotiated with the Americans beforehand. In the meantime, the U.S. command in Afghanistan announced that it will stop destroying poppy crops, which is likely to lead to an increase in drug trafficking through Russian territory this year. Moscow has long been criticizing coalition forces for the lack of action against drug producers in Afghanistan.

And finally, Moscow surprised many nations by saying that it will now bid for WTO membership only as a part of the Customs Union, which also includes Belarus and Kazahkstan. There have been no precedents for blocs of countries entering the WTO as one entity, and current relations between Russia and Belarus are best described as terrible (the countries have only recently concluded a trade war over milk), which suggests that the move may be Russia's way of saying that Moscow doesn't need the WTO for now. In a way, that's unsurprising, since many in the Russian political and business establishment think joining the organization will harm national interests.

As truly pressing issues kept dropping from the reset agenda, U.S.-Russian relations drifted into the more comfortable realm of nuclear disarmament. Nukes are a safe virtual reality, since neither side can even think of ever using them—everyone feels comfortable moving them from one pile into another while ignoring actual problems, like last year's war in Georgia and Russia's stab at regional hegemony.

Actually, even disarmament is to some extent a chimera. The START-1 treaty assumes that all missiles, planes, and submarines are currently loaded to their full capacity with warheads. But this is not the case for either side; both the U.S. and Russia have been futzing with their arsenals and removing warheads unilaterally since ratification. So even though both sides pledged today to slash their stockpiles by roughly a third, the real reduction will be much more modest.

In fact, the final figures may never be announced at all; some government experts in Moscow believe that Russia didn't need a replacement for START-1, which expires Dec. 5. They argue that the aging nuclear arsenal would inevitably have shrunk to levels well below those set by the new deal. And without the checks that START demands, the U.S. may never learn how small the Russian stockpile has become. The nukes will be gone, but the threat will remain, the experts insist.

Still, it will be extremely hard for the Kremlin to abandon nuclear reduction outright, since it is the only remnant of Russia's superpower status. Unlike in America, it's a matter of domestic importance: when government TV shows Russian leaders fishing or picnicking with their U.S. counterparts, ordinary Russians know their country still matters. But if Russia is no longer a priority in Washington, they'll start asking questions. At the same time, too much friendship with the U.S. can also sap a leader's popularity at home. Anti-Americanism is a pillar of Russian ideology. Without it, Russians would need a new enemy to blame for the economic crisis and the confrontations with their neighbors.

It's not that Washington and Moscow have bad relations—by some accounts, they have almost no relations at all.