Obama has an opening with Russia, but at what price?
By Steve Biegun Unlike the clumsy and ill-timed blast that Russian President Medvedev launched at the United States on the day after Barack Obama was elected president, the Russian government now appears to be trying to make more of the opportunities presented by Obama’s inauguration. To wit, Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have both welcomed Obama’s arrival as an opportunity ...
By Steve Biegun
Unlike the clumsy and ill-timed blast that Russian President Medvedev launched at the United States on the day after Barack Obama was elected president, the Russian government now appears to be trying to make more of the opportunities presented by Obama’s inauguration. To wit, Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have both welcomed Obama’s arrival as an opportunity to undo NATO’s decision to proceed with a Central Europe-based missile defense system (to defend against a potential threat from Iran) and to hold back Ukrainian and Georgian ambitions to join NATO. Most recently, sources within the Russian Ministry of Defense appear to be hinting at a retreat from their plan (which Medvedev announced in his November 5 speech) to deploy Iskander short range missiles closer to Central Europe, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Good news? Perhaps. Here are a few things to consider:
1. The Russian government can and should use the opportunity presented by the U.S. election to arrest the downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations. Driven by a general American difference toward Russia’s concerns in the world (right or wrong) and an exaggerated sense of injury and overt anti-Americanism by Russian leaders, with a little effort, Medvedev and Obama should be able to show whether there is still a reasonable basis for U.S.-Russian cooperation on many issues.
2. The Russian government is hardly in a position to spend the vast sums necessary to deploy costly new missiles in Kaliningrad as a symbolic gesture against the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. In effect, the Russian government — with its economy in tatters and hemorrhaging badly — may be making a virtue out of necessity by walking away from this ill-considered deployment.
3. President Obama should move in a measured but sincere way to strengthen U.S. relations at every level — including at the top — but the top means President Medvedev. It is an objective fact that, today, Putin is the most powerful politician in Russia. Even with the election of Medvedev last year, it was not possible for President Bush to shift the locus of relations away from Putin, who had been his interlocutor for seven years. Now, with Obama in place, the United States can truly test the degree to which Medvedev can be the leader of Russia — and whether his instincts run any closer to the liberal political and market thinking that Washington hopes for.
4. Obama has to beware that the Russian piper will want to be paid. During the campaign, Obama fudged questions on the NATO missile defense by saying he wanted to be sure the system was first viable before moving to construct it. Those evasions will not work for long as president: Either the system will have to be built or the Czech and Polish governments, which committed to its construction at significant political risk, will have to be cut loose. All of this is complicated of course by Iran’s continued aggressive pursuit of both a nuclear weapon and a long range missile delivery system (and Russia’s unhelpful role in ending those pursuits).
5. The Russian government’s other demand is to reject Ukrainian and Georgian desires to join NATO. For nearly two decades, the United States has held inviolable the right of all European nations to make a sovereign choice of the institutions (e.g. NATO) that they will join to ensure their security. To rebuff outright the Ukrainian and Georgian desires to join NATO is likely to have a steep cost both in terms of the message it sends to struggling democracies in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the encouragement it gives to Russian irredentists.
So, it is a good thing the Russian government is signaling a desire to ease tensions. And both we and Russia are better off if the Iskander missiles are not deployed to Kaliningrad. But it should also be understood that this is still the preliminaries — positioning in advance of the three, real conversations that are likely to take place in the coming year between Medvedev and Obama (in London at the G-20 Summit in April, in Italy at the G-8 in July, and in Singapore at the APEC Summit in September).
Bottom line: Central and Eastern Europeans beware. Early handicapping is that the NATO missile defense system is dead and that Ukrainian and Georgian ambitions to join NATO will be on the slow boat to China.