US-Russian relations in pre-summit flux

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Days before the NATO summit in Lisbon where he will meet US President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has postponed his annual State of the Union address from 22 to 30 November to account for a possible shift in US-Russian relations, writes global intelligence company Stratfor.

"Over the past six months, Moscow and Washington had set many of their disagreements aside to achieve more critical goals. Russia wanted aid on its modernisation and privatisation programmes, a cessation of Western support for Georgia and Ukraine, and a freeze on ballistic missile defence (BMD) plans in Russia's periphery. The United States wanted Russia to sign onto sanctions against Iran and to drop support for Tehran, as well as provide increased logistical support for the war in Afghanistan.

On all these issues, some sort of common ground had been found, with Moscow and Washington seeming to have struck a temporary detente. One bellwether to judge US-Russian relations has been the new START Treaty – the nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia.

Obama and Medvedev agreed on START in April and it looked as if it would pass in both countries' legislatures, especially in time for the November NATO summit. Stratfor sources in Moscow even indicated that a delegation from the United States two months ago ensured that relations were in a warming period and that START would be signed.

But there has been a shift in Washington in the past month since the November US elections. Since the elections, the US Senate – which must ratify START – has shifted positions. There are senators who are either vociferously opposed to the START document or against it in its current form. There is even a concern that since the elections, START may not even make it to the floor for debate. Russian officials have directly linked the Senate's stall on START to a possible break of any reset in relations between Moscow and Washington.

Attached to the Senate debate on START is whether the United States should even contribute to Russia's modernisation program, which Obama agreed to on Medvedev's last visit. A delay or reversal on either issue on the US side is an indication that Washington is either divided over the future of Russian relations or is starting to cool from its recent warming.

But problems in the Senate over relations with Russia seem to be just the beginning of a possible breakdown in the 'reset' with Russia. The next issue is that at the NATO summit, there is the NATO treaty on BMD that could possibly include Russia's participation in some yet undefined format in any future BMD projects. But this Russian participation would not preclude Washington from making a bilateral deal on setting up missile defence installations – in countries such as Poland and Czech Republic.

While Russia would enjoy being included in a NATO treaty on BMD, it is much more concerned with Washington's bilateral deals on BMD projects in Central Europe. This is an issue Russia had previously assumed was frozen, but without the new NATO treaty covering US bilateral deals, the issue of BMD in Central Europe is back on the table much to Russia's chagrin.

Lastly, there are rumours that military support from the West is returning to Georgia. At this time, STRATFOR cannot confirm these rumours from Moscow sources, but if true, every guarantee Russia struck over the summer with the United States on forming a temporary detente has been abandoned.

This is the fear Moscow has going into this NATO summit over the weekend. Russia seems to be unsure if all the recent signs over the past few weeks on START, modernization, BMD and Georgia are really a decision in the United States to return to an aggressive stance with Russia, or if there are other explanations, like party politics in Washington. This is why Medvedev has pushed back his State of the State address, and sources say that a second version of the speech is being written in which the president won’t be so warm on relations with the United States.

What happens next will be key. If the US has abandoned its understandings with Russia, then it is time for Moscow to reciprocate. This could mean that everything from resuming support for Iran to pulling back on support for the mission in Afghanistan could be considered in the Kremlin."

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