Snowden, nuclear arms cuts and the Moscow summit

Capitol Hill voiced particular outrage at the Snowden development.  Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) referred to the Russian asylum decision as a stab in the back.  Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called for a fundamental review of U.S.-Russia relations.

To be sure, Snowden betrayed his country.  But the Russians regard him as a defector, and they do not send defectors back.  The senators should understand that.

Indeed, would they support sending Alexander Poteyev back to Russia?  Poteyev, a former colonel in Russian intelligence who now reportedly resides in America, was found guilty by a Moscow court of passing information to the United States.  That included information on Anna Chapman and her nine fellow sleeper agents, who were arrested by the FBI and deported to Russia in 2010.  No one, of course, would argue for sending Poteyev back.

It is important to keep perspective.  Washington and Moscow for decades have fenced the Snowden and Poteyev cases off so that they do not undermine the broader relationship.  Such cases do not provide grounds to cancel summits.

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The principal reason for holding the Obama-Putin summit is to make progress on issues important to U.S. national interests.  One such issue is reducing nuclear arms.  The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) requires that the United States and Russia each come down to no more than 1550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018.  That represents progress in cutting down the nuclear overhang left by the Cold War, but levels of 1550 nuclear warheads—each of which is many times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—make little sense today.

Obama would like to cut strategic nuclear weapons further.  In June he proposed lowering New START’s warhead level by one-third.  Further negotiated reductions of nuclear arms make sense for the United States, particularly given the strength of U.S. conventional military capabilities.  Such cuts would reduce the nuclear threat and generate sorely needed defense budget savings.

Moreover, the United States and Russia still control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arms.  Further cuts would bolster Washington’s diplomatic credibility to engage third countries on pressuring North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear weapons programs.

The Moscow summit could also provide a venue for progress on the related issue of missile defense.  The meeting would prove a plus if it helped the sides resolve their differences over this question.  That could even open a path to the cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense that Alliance leaders discussed with then-President Medvedev in 2010.
 
The president has good grounds to go to Moscow if progress can be made on these or on other issues important to his foreign policy agenda, even if Snowden continues to enjoy temporary asylum.  While the Russians reportedly have been unready to engage seriously on the arms control agenda, the planned August 9 meeting of Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel and their Russian ministerial counterparts offers a good venue at which to gauge the possibilities for Moscow.
 
If Kerry and Hagel come away from that discussion seeing no chance for progress, that will undoubtedly affect the White House calculation.  After all, if the summit looks like it will produce no achievements, why pay the domestic political costs of going to Moscow?  But if the summit with Putin offers a reasonable chance to move forward on key issues, such as nuclear cuts that would make Americans safer, the president should go, regardless of the Snowden saga.

Pifer, a retired career Foreign Service officer, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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