When U.S. President Barack Obama travels to Moscow next week for a summit with Russian President Dimitri Medvedev he will take the somewhat unusual step of taking the top U.S. military officer with him. Admiral Mike Mullen's presence is partly related to the key summit issue of further strategic-arms reductions. But it will also emphasize the importance the new U.S. administration puts on renewing a broad range of relations with Russia.
Admiral Mike Mullen ended his first ever visit to Moscow on Sunday, and he will be back there by next Monday. The quick turnaround is a sort of symbol of the turnaround President Obama wants to see in U.S. relations with Russia.
The president has pledged to "reset" the relationship, which suffered after the Russian invasion of Georgia last year. Disagreements over the status of two breakaway regions and NATO military aid to Georgia continue, as do disputes over the U.S. desire to build a missile-defense system in Europe.
But Monday in Moscow, Admiral Mullen will sign a new military cooperation agreement with his Russian counterpart, General Nikolai Makarov, designed to renew and broaden U.S.-Russian military relations. During his recent trip, the admiral was clear about where U.S. strategic priorities lie.
"I think the strategic priority is to renew the military to military part of the relationship. Certainly, the summit is focused on a renewed relationship, as was the meeting that President Medvedev and President Obama had in London," said Mullen.
The new U.S. policy makers, and their top advisers like Admiral Mullen, appear to have concluded they can not afford to allow other issues to interfere with rebuilding relations with Russia, including military relations. And they are not the only ones.
Even as Russian troops conducted a war game near the Georgian border at the end of June, the NATO alliance restored its military ties to Russia, and invited Russian forces to two joint naval exercises in the coming months.
One is off East Africa to practice combating piracy and the other is in the Mediterranean to practice counter-terrorism techniques. Russia was specifically excluded from that exercise last year because of the invasion of Georgia.
In addition, China is seeking better military relations with its sometime-friend, sometime-rival Russia. The two countries have announced a large joint exercise this month, involving 1,300 ground troops from each side and 20 Russian warplanes.
"It is very clear from Russia's investment in their military, the number of exercises they do each year, they have continued to evolve and modernize. And I think the exercises that you see are a reflection of that," he said.
At the same time, the United States is seeking Russian help in continuing to allow supplies to cross its territory for troops in Afghanistan, and in trying to convince Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear and missile programs, as well as in general counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts. Admiral Mullen says there is general agreement on those issues.
But Russia strongly opposes the European missile-defense system the previous U.S. administration negotiated to build in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia's President Medvedev has said there will be no progress on one of the summit's main topics, further reductions in strategic long-range nuclear missiles, unless President Obama abandons the plan.
Russia says the system threatens its security. The United States says the system is purely defensive and is designed to counter the missile threat Iran poses to Europe, and could one day soon pose to the United States.
President Obama ordered a formal review of the program, which has been going on for months. Admiral Mullen says it may take months more, and he acknowledges the review is related to broader European security issues.
"As with all strategies [the question is] how do the other pieces fit in? And certainly I think a question to be answered is, 'How does missile defense fit into that?' And then, what are the decisions with respect to missile defense," said Mullen.
While those questions are asked and slowly answered in Washington, Polish and Czech officials must wait to see whether agreements they signed last year are implemented.
During Admiral Mullen's visit to Warsaw this week, Poland's National Security Adviser, Aleksander Szczyglo, said canceling the missile-defense system to placate Russia would be a mistake.
The Polish official said an angry Russia may seem dangerous to some Americans, but he said he believes the missile threat from Iran, and its "unpredictability," are much more urgent.
At the same time Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries are concerned about any western action, like resuming military relations or cancelling the missile-defense program, which may be seen as legitimizing Russia's use of force against former Soviet satellite countries. Szczyglo would prefer that the United States defy Russia and proceed with the missile-defense system.
He said it is "high time" to establish a permanent NATO or U.S. military presence in Poland, such as the stationing of even a small number of U.S. troops to handle the missile-defense system. Such a move would counter the Iranian threat and also give the 10-year NATO member a greater sense of security in the wake of the Georgia invasion.
Admiral Mullen said he understands that.
And he said the Obama administration is committed to deploying one Patriot mobile short-range air defense system in Poland. The system would initially be for training purposes, and would be accompanied by a small contingent of U.S. troops. It is to be deployed as soon as a fairly standard Status of Forces agreement is signed, which is expected soon.
But the admiral said he can not predict the fate of the missile-defense system.
"How that is going to come out, I just do not know. And I think that is part of what will clearly be finalized in the next few days. And it is for the two presidents to really both decide that and, I think, announce it," he said.
So as President Obama's top military adviser, Admiral Mullen will head back to Moscow to sign the military cooperation agreement, and to be on hand for the final stages of the negotiations.