The Russian government of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has adamantly rejected several series of confidence-building measures that the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush has suggested. That is because the Russians have been outraged by Bush's continued efforts to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ever further into what were for centuries territories controlled by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Three former Soviet republics -- Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia -- are already full NATO members, and Bush encouraged the pro-American leaders of Ukraine and Georgia in the Caucasus to seek NATO membership as well.
However, even while the Russian government refused to deal with the Bush administration at the political and diplomatic level, its top military officer quietly and with no fanfare was discussing a vast range of issues around the world with his opposite number, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs.
On Oct. 21 Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held talks with four-star Russian army Gen. Nikolai Makarov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, at a capacious country house outside Helsinki, the capital of neutral Finland -- and the meeting was held at Makarov's initiative.
As analyst Nikolai Petrov later reported for RIA Novosti, "The sides agreed to resume cooperation under the Russia-NATO Council's auspices, discussed some traditional issues, including counter-terrorism operations, efforts to fight drug trafficking, African and other pirates, as well as the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
The RIA Novosti account reported Makarov as being upbeat and constructive about the talks, even though it was held before the U.S. presidential election and President Bush was still very much in office.
"We have agreed on the need for subsequent efforts and moves in order to solve these important and serious problems," Makarov said.
Further, he said the two military chiefs -- the men in charge of the two most powerful military forces on the planet -- sought to identify, isolate and seek to improve the most serious areas of disagreement between them.
"The issues that we discussed require serious assessment so as to choose the appropriate decisions for adoption and implementation in the future," Makarov was quoted as saying.
Makarov and Mullen clearly regarded their meeting as essential to defuse the escalating tensions that were generated by the Russian invasion and conquest of one-third of former Soviet Georgia in a five-day blitzkrieg from Aug. 8-12. The high-profile commitment of the Bush administration, deploying warships in the Black Sea as a show of force on behalf of President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, made those tensions worse. Adm. Eduard Baltin, former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, publicly stated in August that a single Russian missile battle cruiser could sink every U.S. and NATO warship operating in the Black Sea -- effectively a Russian lake for the past 250 years -- within 20 minutes. Even during the most dangerous times of the Cold War, no Soviet leader or senior military officer talked that way.
However, the Mullen-Makarov talks showed that the top military establishments on both sides wanted to control tensions and harsh language and not let them get out of control. And it also underscored a crucial and often overlooked reality: While the United States remains the undoubted global hyperpower, the Russian armed forces remain dominant on the Eurasian prime global land mass. And the strategic nuclear forces of both nations remain decades ahead of anything any other global power can come up with.
In other words, when it comes to producing, deploying and operating weapons systems, all the way from automatic rifles to multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, America and Russia still remain the undisputed champs. And they alone have the capability to regulate most of the world between them.
(Part 2: The weapons systems that still make Russia and the United States top dogs)