At two recent congressional hearings, U.S. diplomats, defense and military officials outlined how the Obama administration intends to go about "resetting" the U.S. relationship with Russia. Lawmakers on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs, and Armed Services committees asked some tough questions about key aspects of the U.S-Russian relationship.
Questions about where the U.S.-Russia relationship is going are many, ranging from arms control, missile defense and nonproliferation and Iran's nuclear program, to cooperation in counter-terrorism and U.S. concerns about human rights and media freedom in Russia.
Among questions: How can the U.S. work with Russia to persuade Iran to end its uranium enrichment program? How to deal with Moscow's concerns about NATO enlargement? How to maintain support for the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine? What about human rights issues and media suppression in Russia?
State Department and Pentagon officials referred to significant progress in U.S.-Russian relations, and specific steps taken at the Moscow Summit in early July, saying military to military relations are getting back on track.
Describing the summit as far more productive than expected, Alexander Vershbow, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, referred to one notable outcome.
"The signature of an agreement permitting the transit of U.S. troops and lethal materiel through Russian airspace, up to 4,500 military flights and unlimited commercial flights each year, which will diversify supply routes and significantly reduce transit times and fuel costs," said Alexander Vershbow.
Vershbow also pointed to a joint understanding to reduce each side's strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, commitments to strengthen cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, and what he called Russia's recognition that it has a stake in defeating the Taliban and establishing a stable and democratic Afghanistan.
In both House hearings, officials repeated almost word for word an assurance that improving U.S.-Russian relations and eventual fully- resumed military-to-military contacts will not come at the expense of key principles.
Vice Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., is Director for Strategic Plans and Policy for the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff:
"Our improved military relations with Russia will not come at the expense of our already positive and cooperative military relations with our NATO partners and our other important partners," said Admiral Winnefeld. "We do not believe it beneficial to engage in zero sum gamesmanship in Eurasia or anywhere else, and we hope to convey that sentiment to our Russian colleagues through cooperative progress in areas of common strategic interest."
Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said that since President Obama pledged to "reset" relations, the two countries have taken important steps to improve the tone of relations and building goodwill.
But Gordon said there will be no change in the U.S. relationship with its NATO allies, predicting that Washington and Moscow will likely continue to disagree over Georgia and NATO enlargement.
Celeste Wallander, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said that despite disagreements over Georgia as well as Ukraine, Russia is signaling it wants to engage with NATO.
"Despite disagreement on Georgia and Ukraine, Russia clearly seeks to engage with NATO, in the NATO-Russia council and in NATO-Russia military to military cooperation," said Celeste Wallander.
When he testified before the (Foreign Affairs) Subcommittee on Europe, Gordon was asked about possible U.S. - Russian cooperation on the defensive missile system the U.S plans to place in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Russia has objected bitterly to the plan, which the U.S. says is designed only to protect against missile launches from Iran or other threats from the Middle East.
Gordon had this response when Democratic Representative David Scott asked how the U.S. would respond to a Russian offer of cooperation:
SCOTT: "If Russia comes back and says to the president, yes we will help you, we will help to get Iran to stop its procurement of nuclear weapons, if you will remove the missile defense shield, what would the U.S. answer be?"
GORDON: "The deployment of a missile defense system in Europe or anywhere else would be designed to protect us from a threat that exists. Therefore, the simple willingness to help try to deal with that threat would probably not be enough to lead to a conclusion that we don't need missile defenses."
Gordon noted a U.S. offer of discussions with Russia on joint cooperation on missile defense, but said the plan will be driven only by the degree of threat, and the technological ability to deal with it, and would not be linked to Russian offers to renew the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement.
Democrat Robert Wexler, who chairs the Europe subcommittee, cited tensions over Georgia, the Russian military presence in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and concerns some Central and East European nations have about Russia, as reasons not to be "overly optimistic" about U.S.-Russian relations
On Iran, Wexler said Russia's actions suggest it is anything but a real partner.
"Russia has failed to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions and their accompanying sanctions, continues to build the Bushehr nuclear power plant and provides the Iranian government with lethal weapons, even signing an agreement to sell the S-300 anti-missile defense system to Tehran," said Robert Wexler.
Republican Dana Rohrabacher asserted that the U.S. has taken Russia for granted and should be working harder to mend relations with Moscow.
"This is a different world than it was then [during Cold War]," said Dana Rohrabacher. "And we have to reach out to the Russians or we will suffer because of it."
In fielding questions on Iran, Assistant Secretary Gordon told lawmakers that the Obama administration has told Russia that sales of sophisticated arms, including an anti-aircraft system, to Iran would be a real problem in bilateral ties.
On Iran's nuclear program, Gordon noted that Russia has agreed to a joint threat assessment on ballistic and nuclear issues to include an examination of Iranian efforts.
He said one of the objectives of a U.S government inter-agency team visiting Moscow is to share the U.S. analysis, and persuade Russia that pressure must be increased if Iran fails to respond positively and soon on the issue.