The signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty today in Prague was accompanied by the usual inflated rhetoric. President Obama hailed the treaty as a "milestone." Russian president Dmitri Medvedev said it was a "win-win situation." News accounts spoke of a "new chapter" in U.S.-Russian relations. After a long and exhausting negotiating process, it seemed that no one wanted to suggest that the treaty was, at best, meaningless and, at worst, an impediment to American strategic planning. But for anyone attuned to nuances, this implication was hard to miss.
In the first place, the START ceiling of 700 deployed launchers is hardly onerous for Russia. The aging of its Cold War nuclear arsenal means that Russia presently is under the ceiling even without a treaty. Ironically, the treaty leaves open the possibility that the number of Russian launchers can actually increase. (As it happens, the process of retiring obsolescent missiles in Russia must continue because many of them, if they are not retired, will soon pose their greatest threat to Russia itself.)
Obama said that he and Medvedev will continue discussions on missile defense. This also is not particularly encouraging. The missile defense issue is used in Russia to inspire anti-American sentiment, the better to distract Russians from the misrule of their president-for-life (Putin) and permanent kleptocratic ruling class. New discussions on missile defense are therefore likely to be a dialogue of the deaf. The present Russian leadership not only does not care about America's security concerns, it is indifferent to Russia's own. What matters are the interests of the ruling group, and these are best served by anything that facilitates anti-American propaganda.
Finally, Medvedev had to make some gesture to the Americans over a real issue stopping the nuclear progress of Iran. But he did so in a way that signals that cooperation is not in the offing. Medvedev appeared to endorse sanctions against Iran last fall only to have his statements contradicted by his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. On this occasion, he did not go nearly as far. "Regrettably," Medvedev said, Iran is not responding to "many constructive proposals." Russia "cannot turn a blind eye toward this." Further action at the U.N. cannot be "ruled out." In other words, the seven-year-old Russian policy of non-cooperation over Iran is unchanged.
The Obama administration, in celebrating this latest triumph for the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations, is mistaking illusion for reality. Real improvements in relations result from changes in Russia's internal situation. Despite the pomp in Prague, any progress unrelated to Russian progress on human rights exists largely in the eyes of the beholder.