Will the ceasefire hold in Syria? Or, won’t it? There are no easy answers. Much depends on Washington and Moscow’s success in carrying along their allies, friends and acquaintances in the region.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) shows the way to Sam Nunn, co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, during a meeting in Moscow on Feb. 24

However, the clincher could be lurking just below-the-radar – the prospects of the broadening US-Russia engagement going on steadily.

Moscow is hosting an interesting visitor from Washington – Sam Nunn, former US senator for 24 years who played a seminal role in the Soviet-American detente and disarmament, and who was, in fact, seriously mentioned as a potential running mate of President Barack Obama in the 2008 election.

Nunn presently heads the modest-sounding Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization working on global threats from weapons of mass destruction.

More to the point, he co-authored the famous Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991 that aimed at “securing and destroying weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states”.

People may not talk much about a controversial visit by the then US Senator Barack Obama to Russia in 2005, but that was as part of a fact-finding mission under the Nunn-Lugar Act led by the redoubtable Richard Lugar, to a nuclear weapon site at Perm in remote Siberia.

The Americans look back wistfully at the Nunn-Lugar Act as a productive endeavor in global nuclear security. In 2012, however, Russia resiled from it and in January 2015 Moscow informed Washington they no longer wanted US assistance to secure their weapons-grade nuclear material.

The rise and fall of the Nunn-Lugar Act is, metaphorically speaking, a chroncile of the troubled post-Cold war US-Russia relationship. As Russia began resenting overbearing US mentorship over the transition away from Soviet era, and as suspicions incrementally accrued as regards US intentions, Moscow shook off the Nunn-Lugar Act.

It was an early sign of Russia’s growing assertiveness and its determination that nuclear deterrence capability would remain for a foreseeable future  intrinsic to the global strategic balance and its national defense.

The probability is exceedingly high that Nunn is on a ‘Track 1.5’ mission to Moscow. The Russians know he is very close to both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Global nuclear security is an important platform on Obama’s presidential agenda. So the big question arises: Now that Obama has reversed the tide of US-Iranian  and US-Cuban relationships, climbed heights to advance global concord on climate change, shrunk the Afghan war and pulled out troops from Iraq, negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and, of course, is initiating the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison, does he intend to revisit the disarmament agenda, which signalled in his 2009 Prague speech as his finest presidential legacy?

Indeed, Obama places great store on the Nuclear Security Summit on March 31-April 1. But Russia refuses to participate, accusing Washington of seeking to play first fiddle on matters of nuclear safety, which ought to be the prerogative of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, a United Nations watchdog.

Despite putting a brave face on Moscow’s ‘Nyet’, Washington knows that the summit will be a damp squib without President Vladimir Putin’s participation. After all, Russia and the US account for 90% of world’s nuclear weapon stockpiles.

Meanwhile, despite Moscow’s snub, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice seized the 5th anniversary of the New START Treaty on February 5 to invite Russia to restart talks on further reduction to nuclear arsenals. She said in a White House statement,

  • This verifiable and stabilizing agreement (START II) provides predictability in the management of the nuclear forces of both countries…  We… continue to call on Russia to answer the President’s invitation five years ago to begin talks on further reductions to our nuclear arsenals.

 The Russian Foreign Ministry, in turn, signaled, “The implementation of the provisions of the treaty is an example of Russia’s strict compliance with its international obligations in the sphere of non-proliferation and arms control.”

The statement underscored that START II “is an important factor in the strengthening of international security and stability,” and provides “adequate transparency in the military-strategic relations between our countries.”

The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov spoke on February 6 responding to Rice’s overture. He found fault with the US proposal on disarmament talks from various angles, but, most interestingly, summed up as follows:

  • The third issue we need to highlight… is the complete absence of political logic or common sense in a disarmament proposal when the current US administration has been working consistently and for a long time to undermine Russia’s defense and industrial potential through its policy of sanctions. It appears that the attempts to weaken Russia through sanctions, which have so far failed, have not stopped, but at the same time Russia is being urged to discuss further arms reductions. This is not how this should be done.

The beauty about US-Russia disputes and differneces has always been that the Amercian side never takes ‘no’ for an answer from the Russians. Ryabkov hinted that a Russian-American strategic engagement is possible within an overarching reset.

That was three weeeks ago. It might be too late to persuade Putin to attend the Washington summit, but while receiving Nunn in Moscow on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov effusively praised the venerable senator as “one of the most influential US politicians” who always sought “an equal and pragmatic dialogue… based on mutual trust” between the two countries. Lavrov said,

  • I very much hope that politicians of your stature, who take a responsible approach toward everything that is happening in the world, will work to counter this negative trend and consolidate honest, equal and mutually beneficial cooperation between our countries, which benefits strategic stability and therefore benefits every country.
  • In this context, we are certainly interested in promoting collaboration between Russian and US political analysts, experts and politicians.

These are early days, but spring is in the air. One can smell it. The ball that Obama set rolling by deputing Kerry to visit Putin in Sochi in May last year has become ‘kinetic’. In every conversation Obama since had with Putin, he paired the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

In December, Putin appointed two of his close Kremlin aides Vladislav Surkov and Boris Gryzlov as ‘back channels’ on Ukraine, while Lavrov concentrates on Syria. The biggest single outcome of the proposed ceasefire in Syria could be the ‘mil-to-mil’ coordination between the US and Russia, which has been the Kremlin’s demand all along.

The US, European Union and Russia are virtually imposing solutions in Ukraine and Syria. (The US and China are moving broadly in similar direction with regard to North Korea.) Of course, the self-styled regional powers may not like what is unfolding  in Ukraine (Poland, Baltic states, Turkey, etc.) and Syria (Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.) – or North Korea, for that matter (Japan, South Korea, the Phillippines, etc.).

To be sure, the risk of miscalculation is high between the two nuclear superpowers and a ‘de-alerting’ of nuclear arsenals itself could immensely reduce the risk of firing nuclear weapons in knee-jerk reaction to a false alarm. Will Putin receive Nunn later today?

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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