A fresh start with Russia: what’s the trade-off?
The move would be the clearest signal so far of the start of a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations, which could be one of the major changes in U.S. President Barack Obama’s first year in office. We don’t know what commitment, if any, Obama may have given to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the missile shield (the two spoke by telephone earlier this week).
Obama’s scepticism about the effectiveness and utility of missile defence was clearly stated during the campaign. But since the Russians unilaterally made the Kaliningrad threat on the day of his election, the suspension of the deployment plan is a clear goodwill gesture. It follows NATO’s announcement, slipped out without fanfare earlier this week, that political relations with Moscow, frozen after the Georgia war, would resume within a few weeks.
Expect Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to foam about appeasement.
The Obama administration has already made clear it will pursue bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control treaties which Bush eschewed. At the very least, they will try to negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty to replace START 1, which expires at the end of this year. This is important because it treats Russia as a nuclear power on an equal footing with the United States, which the status-conscious Kremlin craves and the Bush administration always dismissed.
Obama realises he needs Russian cooperation for the two biggest foreign policy items on his agenda this year: trying to defang Iran’s nuclear ambitions and turn the tide in Afghanistan.
The Russians have made clear what some of the trade-offs could be: safe supply routes for U.S. and NATO forces to Afghanistan across Russia and its central Asian friends in exchange for a halt to NATO expansion along Russia’s southern border. There is no consensus in NATO to take in Ukraine and Georgia. Germany and France blocked giving them a roadmap to membership last year and the U.S. agreed reluctantly in December to put the issue on the back-burner for now.
The question is whether Obama will go further in reassuring Moscow that membership is off the table for the foreseeable future. Expect howls of betrayal from neo-cons, the Baltic states and Poland if he does. Another potential trade-off involves the U.S. postponing missile shield deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic as long as diplomatic efforts are under way to persuade Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment programme, in return for Russian agreement to tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran and postponement of delivery of high-grade S300 air defence missiles which Moscow has reportedly sold to Tehran, and which could make any U.S. air strike on Iran more difficult.
Both trade-offs would require the Obamistas to eat ideologically unpalatable craw and take flak in Washington, but that’s the prerogative of new administrations.
The implications for Europe of closer U.S. ties with Russia are mixed. The Obamistas have promised their first move in relations with Russia will be to consult European allies. But unless deftly handled diplomatically, a strategic opening to Russia could heighten fears of being bypassed in the Baltic and central European states, and cause frustration in Brussels at being out of the loop.
(Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a show commemorating the 65th anniversary of the lifting of the Leningrad siege in World War Two in St.Petersburg, January 27, 2009. During the war, Leningrad suffered an 872-day siege by invading German armies where starvation killed 640,000 people and bombs killed 17,000. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Vladimir Rodionov/Handout (RUSSIA). )