On Monday and Tuesday, July 11-12, senior American and Russian diplomats gathered around a table in Washington with orders from their respective presidents to keep talking until a puff of smoke went up from the meeting room.
On the table, were eight more or less intractable issues: The reduction of strategic offensive weapons, the Iranian nuclear program, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Central Asia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the Israel-Palestinians question, the crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Europe-based missile shield, North Korea and more.
The teams were told by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev to keep on working their way through this pile until agreement on US-Russian diplomatic cooperation and military coordination had substantially reduced it.
This directive was put in the hands of Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns – the US team leader, Special Assistant to the US President Dennis Ross, Special Envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman and Acting Special Envoy for Middle East Peace David Hale.
Facing them were Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Mikhail Bogdanov and the Russian Foreign Minister's Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Ambassador at Large Sergey Yakovlev. Beside them sat Russia's special Presidential Envoy Mikhail Margelov – the secret go-between who has spent the last two years traveling inconspicuously around the Middle East capitals in the background of big crises. Most recently, he has focused on shuttling between Tripoli, Benghazi and Damascus.
Obama radically resets the US landscape with Russia
This unusual get-together attracted little notice amid the White House's furious efforts to avert a calamitous US debt default, Europe's focus on hauling Greece and Italy back from the financial brink and the hullabaloo around the hacking-cum-corruption scandals besetting Rupert Murdoch's British tabloids and threatening to spread to the United States.
Very quietly, therefore, the American and Russian teams packed their papers away on the night of Tuesday, July 12, having met each other halfway on most of the items on the table.
Without wasting a minute, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday, July 13 arrived in Washington. He was immediately closeted with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then with President Obama.
Clinton then said it was necessary for the US and Russia to keep up the current tempo of their diplomatic reset and Obama put in a phone call to his Russian opposite number to tie up loose ends in the accords reached by the two teams.
In the space of two days, the United States had performed a 180-degree turnabout in key foreign policies and recast its role in a number of burning financial, diplomatic and military crises.
Thursday night, July 14, as we write this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Moscow have not had access to the new understandings hammered out between Washington and Moscow. But the information reaching us from sources in Europe, NATO, the Middle East and Afghanistan, bespeaks a dramatically reshaped inter-power landscape with global ramifications.
Angela Merkel makes it a troika
President Obama's first step was to co-opt Russia as senior ally in his next diplomatic steps for Europe and the Middle East and attach Germany as his second partner.
As of this week, therefore, diplomacy in those regions is led by a threesome, Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev and Angela Merkel.
During Merkel's visit to Washington earlier this month (July 6-7), the US president and German chancellor managed to overcome their past frosty and awkward relations on certain issues.
American and German reporters who covered the visit commented on the state dinner that the president threw in her honor that both "seemed intent – very, very, very intent – on displaying a kind of chumminess and familiarity out of keeping with their customarily cool and detached demeanors."
The first order of business the new troika has set itself is closure of the hopelessly inconclusive Libya war with a ceasefire and adoption of the understandings the discreet Russian presidential envoy Mikhail Margelov reached last month with the Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam as the basis for an end to the conflict.
Qaddafi hands over power but stays in Libya
These understandings entailed the phased transfer of power from Qaddafi to a transitional administration with equal representation for his sons, heads of the regime and the anti-Qaddafi rebels. It will hold power for an interim period until a general election. Qaddafi will not be required to leave the country. His sons and other Qaddafi loyalists will run for election as a political party. The parliament elected will be responsible for appointing the next government.
As soon as Col. Qaddafi hands Moscow a formal commitment to step down, the international war crimes court at The Hague will be directed to revoke its indictments against him and his associates.
According to the information reaching our sources, Obama, Medvedev, Merkel, Tripoli and the rebels of Benghazi have arrived at a consensus for Russia and Germany to be awarded the contracts for reconstructing Libyan oilfields after the war is over.
The US president has therefore recalled his blessing for a resounding NATO blitz with American military participation to finally bomb Muammar Qaddafi out of power, although by doing so he has sentenced the Western alliance to a military defeat.
Obama's acceptance of the Russian-Libyan formula for a resolution of the Libyan conflict is a damaging setback for two fellow Western leaders: British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had pinned their hopes on beating Qaddafi as a means of polishing their images as powerful and victorious war leaders who could be trusted to lead their nations out of trouble, including their economic ailments.
Russia and Germany will handle Bashar Assad's marching orders too
A similar format was agreed by the three leaders for Syria.
Moscow was ready to broker a deal for President Bashar Assad and his family to transfer power in stages to a transitional regime in Damascus in which all of Syria's political and religious groupings would be represented.
Obama, Medvedev and Merkel have all come to terms with the inevitability of terminating Assad's tyrannical reign in Damascus and the transfer of power to elements outside his family and the military and security mechanisms propping them up.
Although Assad refuses to abandon his brutal methods, promulgate reforms or make the slightest concessions for loosening his grip on power, Medvedev and Lavrov have assured Obama they know how to contrive a situation that will ease him out.
The threesome agreed that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan could if he chose attach himself to their tactics for Assad. But if he took exception to any part of their scenario, they would proceed without him.
President Obama is therefore cutting Erdogan out of his strategy for Syria unless he is wholeheartedly aligned with it – just as he has cast the British and French leaders aside to extricate the West from the Libyan impasse. He has chosen to throw in his lot with Moscow and Berlin, both of whom objected to NATO military intervention in Libya in the first place.
Russia will take over Pakistan's supply route to NATO in Afghanistan
The new troika also has also shaped joint plans for persuading Iran to drop its nuclear weapons programs, details of which have yet to emerge.
The United States and Russia have agreed to expand their military cooperation in Afghanistan.
In the last two years, Russia has given the US-led allies in Afghanistan an alternative supply route to the corridor through Pakistan.
The Northern Distribution Network-NDN is a logistical corridor connecting the Baltic and Black Sea ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Today the NDN has expanded and accounts for more than half of all US military transit to Afghanistan.
In the coming year, more than three-quarters of US and NATO military supplies will transit this corridor, thus reducing Washington's dependence on Pakistan.
On the Palestinian issues, the threesome agreed not back the Palestinian bid for UN recognition of an independent state. They will lean on Ramallah diplomatically and financially to force Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, to go back to direct negotiations with Israel.
They also endorsed President Obama's call on Israel to accept its withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries with territorial adjustments in respect of its security requirements.
The list of accords reached between Washington, Moscow and Berlin includes many more items, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report. Some relate to trilateral economic and financial cooperation and include opening to Russia the doors of international financial institutions, such as the World Trade Organization.
The German chancellor gives ballast to the US-Russian duo
A cursory glance suggests that Obama gave more than he got from his deals with Russia and Germany. This may be an optical illusion which is dispelled as more information comes out.
Two years ago, President Obama announced a reset in US-Russia relations. The rhetoric sounded good but was never matched by practicalities. The smiles and warm handshakes which marked Obama-Medvedev conversations were often marred by obstacles and difficulties – some of them heaped in their path by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
It was never quite clear to Obama administration strategists whether Medvedev genuinely aspired to friendly ties and cooperation with Washington while Putin waited in the wings with a stick to knock them over, or they were playing the good cop-bad cop gambit to keep Washington at sea.
The new reset is different in that Chancellor Merkel figures in the equation.
She and Putin are great friends. She is believed to be one of the few foreigners with influence over the Russian prime minister. He always pays her the courtesy of talking to her in fluent German.
Putin is known to be a fervent advocate of the proposition that Russia and Germany are natural allies destined by history for the role of Europe's superpowers. This proposition was espoused by Merkel's predecessors from different parts of the political spectrum like Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Kohl.
Admitting the United States to their alliance for the first time contributes to the fulfillment of the Putin vision. The Obama administration is therefore a lot more optimistic now than it was in the past about the chances of its new start with Moscow enduring.