Editors note - Albert Oetgen, Managing Editor NBC News Washington, is in Moscow with the NBC News team. He visited the Kremlin today.
By Albert Oetgen, Managing Editor NBC News Washington
For more than 10 centuries -- through horrid winters, brutal sieges, devastating fires and wildly conflicting ideological struggles -- two persistent characteristics have emerged to define this ancient fortress and the Russian culture itself: Mystery and complexity. The medium: the Kremlin, is the message: Kremlinology.
It overlooks the Moscow River. Its walls and towers appear impregnable, though the Russian people live with the painful knowledge they are neither physically nor symbolically so. History has reminded them, repeatedly, that anything you set up on this hilltop is vulnerable and temporary. Everything here is either citadel to some hard-forgotten past, or tenuous monument to an uncertain present.
The Soviets seemed to get it. They didn't wait for fires and wars. They simply began tearing things down -- though with characteristic inefficiency, they managed to leave most of it standing.
They also employed a ritualistic practice that rendered the mystery and complexity of the centuries alive and vibrant. American government analysts watched intently as Soviet leaders lined up on Kremlin balconies to review their grim-faced troops and frightening weaponry. Who stood next to whom? Who stood a little bit in front of the others? Who is there that wasn't there last time. More ominously, who is missing?
It was another example of totalitarian inefficiency, now reflected in the confusion over the real pecking order in their nascent democracy: Is President Dimitry Medvedev in charge? Or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin? The convenient convention of the parade reviewing stand is no longer in play. The Kremlin is, as usual, being the Kremlin.
But there was one brief moment when clarity displaced mystery; simplicity trumped complexity.
When it came to nuclear weaponry, the Soviet stewardship of the hilltop fortress matched that of the proud hunters who first staked the place out and expelled the bears: They produced enough weaponry to destroy us all multiple times, efficiently matching the strategic capability of the American arsenal and creating a global standoff that elevated the Kremlin to the heights the Russian imagination had conjured longingly but the Russian people had never managed to reach.
President Obama paid tribute today to the ironic effectiveness of the nuclear standoff and the unambiguous threat of Soviet Russia:
"Part of what got us through the Cold War was a sufficient sense of parity and deterrent capability; that both sides during those very difficult times understood that a first strike, the attempt to use nuclear weapons in a military conflict against the other, could result in a extremely heavy price."
Looking to the future, his counterpart, Mr. Medvedev summed up what they agreed to:
"We have discussed measures of cooperation in the nuclear field and the most important is that we will continue our cooperation in every area."
The two presidents made their announcement of a new nuclear agreement in an elaborately gilded room, Andreyevsky Hall, in -- of course -- the Kremlin. And so the question, the real question about what to expect from this agreement, the question on the tip of the tongue of every Kremlinologist (and everyone here is a Kremlinologist to some degree) is this:
Is Mr. Medvedev Mr. Obama's true counterpart? And does he have the influence to make the nuclear arms reduction "framework" they announced develop into something concrete?
Or, as the hunters returning from the woods to their cozy hilltop enclave might ask:
We know he's out there hunting. So what exactly did Mr. Putin bag today?