International involvement in Syria and Afghanistan, cyber security, economic cooperation, nuclear reduction, missile defense and fighting terrorism will top the agenda for the two presidents’ bilateral meeting in Northern Ireland.

Photo source: AP

Despite the downturn in U.S.-Russian relations, which hit a new low with a mutual exchange of blacklists, the first presidential meeting between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama to take place on the fringes of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on June 17-18 holds some promise for improvement. Experts are pinning high hopes on it and expect breakthroughs in a number of areas.

There are six key points on the agenda for bilateral Russian-U.S. negotiations:

     Syria and Afghanistan

Given the United States’ recent decision to step up its support for the Syrian opposition, a discussion of the American involvement in Syria is sure to top the two presidents’ meeting agenda.

“Putin and Obama will discuss the implementation of the Russian-­American initiative to prepare an international conference [on Syria] in Geneva,” Russian Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov told journalists on June 14.

“But what exactly Obama and Putin will discuss is difficult for me to gauge, because if the meeting only lasts an hour and Syria ‘eats up’ 45 minutes, there will only be 15 minutes left to discuss other issues,” Ushakov said.

Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Presidium of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, noted that it is also important for Moscow to have a clear understanding of how the United States intends to act with regard to Afghanistan.

"Regional crises are the front and center of attention. Afghanistan is likely to be actively discussed because something is changing there, and Russia needs to know what exactly the Americans are up to. In his most recent speech, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai said that the Americans would keep nine bases in Afghanistan, which is different from what had been said before – that only a minimal number of troops would stay behind," Lukyanov said.

      Fighting cyber threats

U.S. Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel and State Department Coordinator for Cyber Issues Christopher Painter visited Moscow in late April. They initialed a number of bilateral intergovernmental agreements on cyberspace confidence building measures, which envisage the establishment of a “hotline” for cyber incidents and the creation of a special taskforce on data security as part of a presidential commission. Negotiations on this matter have been ongoing for two years, and if the two presidents end up signing the relevant documents in June, the breakthrough in this area will have been unprecedented.

Vladimir Orlov, president of the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, agreed that substantial progress has been made in Russian-U.S. cooperation on cyber security. "It goes without saying that now that cyber security has become an important aspect of global security, a dialogue between such players as Russia and the United States is a matter of principle. It should be conducted on the presidential level, and not below," Orlov said.

      Replacing the Nunn-Lugar Program

Under this program the United States has been financing the dismantling of excessive Russian nuclear and chemical weapons since the beginning of the 1990s. But last fall Moscow decided not to extend the program, which officially ends on June 16, saying that Russia no longer needs any subsidies.

Potential replacements for the program were discussed during Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller's visit to Moscow in February, after which she met with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Geneva. "Obama and Putin have some homework to do in Northern Ireland," Orlov said. "They must give a new impetus to bilateral cooperation on the reduction of nuclear threats, as well as other threats related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the Nunn-Lugar Program."

Orlov believes that the presidents are likely to look over documents that could potentially establish a new legal and political framework for cooperation in this area. The Nunn-Lugar Program could thus be replaced with a new one that would treat both parties as equals, he noted.

      Galvanizing economic cooperation

For this purpose, Russia and the United States are planning to set up a new consultation mechanism involving Vice President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The new forum is expected to be less bureaucratic than the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission of the 1990s, and will allow for free discussion of urgent matters. The commission would be able to report its findings and present recommendations for the United States and Russia in time for the September meeting between Putin and Obama in St. Petersburg. 

"Putin always raises economic issues and stresses his interest in strengthening the economic component of Russian-U.S. relations," said Tatyana Shakleina, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations and a professor at the Moscow State University of International Relations. This means there are grounds to expect progress in the economic sphere after a long hiatus, she believes.

      Promoting negotiations on missile defense

A personal meeting between Putin and Obama in June could give a substantial impulse to the Russian-U.S. negotiations on missile defense. Some pundits even expect the fate of those talks to be decided this summer. They point to the fact that the stage has been set by an exchange of personal letters between the two presidents. Although Putin's reaction to Obama's proposal to "develop a legally-binding agreement on transparency, which would include the exchange of information to confirm that our programs do not pose a threat to each other's deterrence forces" was muted, the U.S. State Department is still counting on the face-to-face meeting being successful.

In Orlov's opinion, "while the United States' proposals on missile defense don't seem to meet Russian interests 100 percent, they do meet them by 30 to percent. Make that 50 percent and there is a basis for dialogue – not yet a solution, but a political dialogue that could become constructive. Obama and Putin could give an impetus to this in Northern Ireland," he said.

      Combating terrorism

Discussion at the meeting is also bound to touch on increased cooperation in the sphere of fighting terrorism, which seems especially pressing in lieu of the Boston Marathon bombings in April of 2013. “The Russian side is interested in cooperating with the American partners in the special services’ line of work in order to ensure security at the Sochi Olympic Games,” Ushakov said.