A Deal with Moscow? Don’t Bet on It

There's still good reason not to get excited about Russian cooperation on Iran.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. officials were practically giddy when they heard Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on Wednesday indicate possible Russian support for new sanctions against Iran. "We believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision," Medvedev said with President Barack Obama standing next to him. "Sanctions rarely lead to positive results, but in some cases, the use of sanctions is inevitable." Obama’s chief Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, was "delighted," according to the New York Times. "I couldn’t have said it any better myself," he said. You could almost hear the champagne corks popping in the American delegation’s suites.

But will Medvedev’s words actually translate into Russian actions when it comes time to draft a tough resolution and vote? The Obama team appears to expect the Russians to go along, especially after its decision last week to scrap Bush administration plans for missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. McFaul and other senior officials have rejected the notion of such a deal. "Is it the case that it changes the climate? That’s true, of course. But it’s not cause-and-effect," McFaul argued.

Deal or no deal, Obama officials might want to recall that Russia has voted for U.N. resolutions against Iran in the past, but those texts were significantly watered down at Moscow’s insistence. Russia has also defied the spirit of those resolutions by continuing a business-as-usual approach to Tehran, including continued sales of arms and nuclear reactors. And Russian support for a sanctions resolution is far from a fait accompli. Just last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced their opposition to new sanctions.

Still, the Obama administration seems determined to argue that its push for Iran sanctions has absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever to do with its missile defense decision. Said Obama:

"Russia had always been paranoid about this, but George Bush was right, this wasn’t a threat to them. So my task here was not to negotiate with the Russians about what our defense posture is. … If the by-product of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or nuclear development … then that’s a bonus." 

Methinks thou doth protest too much. That the administration made its decision a week before Obama’s meeting with Medvedev seems more than a coincidence. (That the Poles were informed of the decision on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of their country was callous treatment of a loyal ally.) The administration needs Medvedev’s support on possible new sanctions against Iran.  It also wants to remove a major obstacle to conclusion of a post-START arms control deal; the Russians threatened to scupper that accord if the United States went ahead with 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. And yet if the administration is to be believed, Russia wasn’t a factor in the decision, and there was no deal. 

Then again, the positive reaction in Moscow to the president’s decision last week may start to dissipate as Russian officials focus on the details of the new missile defense configuration.  Under phase two of the administration’s plans, the United States will look to deploy land-based SM-3 missiles by 2015. A distinct candidate for hosting those missiles, according to officials, is Poland. The agreement signed last year between Washington and Warsaw would still cover deployment of the SM-3s, obviating the need to negotiate a new accord with another country. 

Despite being stiffed last week, some Polish officials seem interested in hosting the new system.  According to Reuters, Slawomir Nowak, a senior advisor to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, said, "If this system becomes reality in the shape Washington is now suggesting, it would actually be better for us than the original missile shield program." 

The possibility that Poland could wind up hosting U.S. missiles after all is not likely to go over well in Moscow. Indeed, it was the fact that the United States would be cooperating on missile defense with two states that the Russians used to control that was most disturbing to the Kremlin. Even former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, certainly no hard-liner, hinted at this in his op-ed in the Sept. 25 New York Times. "A week ago, [Obama] announced that the United States will not deploy — at least, not in the foreseeable future — a missile defense site in Central Europe…" (emphasis added). 

Should the land-based phase of Obama’s plans include stationing missiles in Poland, the Russian reaction is likely to turn very negative. They will feel tricked after initially thinking Obama’s decision was a victory for them. If that’s the case, the administration will have raised doubts in the minds of our Central European allies about our reliability while also pissing off the Russians.  That will be another reason to keep those champagne bottles on ice. 

David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and author of the recent book, "Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime."

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