A fresh start with Russia: what’s the trade-off?

January 28, 2009

Russia has reversed its decision to station missiles in the Western outpost of Kaliningrad, next door to the European Union, according to Interfax.

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). )


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The world has too much conflicts to deal with and it is sensible to avoid new ones, especially when the world superpowers are at loggerhead. The USA and Russia have heavily invested in missiles than they have engaged in addressing world poverty, democracy deficit and globalisation issues. When the civilised world carry on using force to resolve its differences, what lessons is going to preach to Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Guinea, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Angola, Zimbabwe, Bosnia, Isreal, Palestine, Kosovo…Time is up for new world order.

Posted by Philippe Mandangi | Report as abusive

Obama should take care. Treat Russia with respect, but do not play into its hands. Russia seeks to build up its global influence. Energy pipelines and NATO supply routes will only give Russia more leverage over the West in the future.Most of Russia’s posturing really has nothing to do with the opinions of the rest of the world. It is more to do with pleasing its own civilians, who always look for signs that their nation has rebuilt into a superpower.Russia has lots of skeletons in the closet. Military action in Georgia. Strict control over media. Government control over most Russian corporations. Human rights activists and journalists having “accidents” while in police custody. An ex-KGB leader who is about to be voted President-for-Life.Perhaps Obama should leave the Bear well enough alone, and politely work around it. As long as relations are frosty, America will not need to bend over backwards to accomodate it.Something which might be useful when the Iran issue comes to a head in 12 months or so.

Posted by Spooky | Report as abusive

Obama will end up being duped by both the Russians and the Iranians and the unfortunate consequence will be that the people of eastern Europe and the middle east will suffer under the rule of new dictators. Lack of a missile defence shield over eastern Europe will enable both the Russians and Iranians to threaten those countries along with Israel. They already control much of the energy needs of Europe and energy blackmail will be in their future power play. Both Russia and Iran are teamed up for new areas of domination as the US unilateraly withdraws under Obama. Get ready for a middle east facing Iranian nuclear weapons and Obama will standby as it develops much as US President Bill Clinton negotiated a “no nuclear” treaty with North Korea in the early 90’s which they violated and went on to develope a bomb; but it will much much more serious threat when Iran has it because they have the often stated will to use it on their neighbors!!!

Posted by ernst | Report as abusive

“Howls of betrayal”? (From Eastern Europe). Reuters staff, give me a break please. We Eastern Europeans have been members of NATO for several years, there is more than an implicit understanding involved in this compact. But seriously – “howls of betrayal”? Is this not below the belt? Is this dispassionate? Is this use of non-loaded terminology? You could have written this in tens of ways. For example: “If Obama does not support giving NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, we can expect strongly worded objections from the neo-cons, the Baltic States and Poland”. “Howls of disapproval” my foot, when do we in fact truly hear the Baltic States or Poland beating the podium with their shoes? An unkind cut. To Ernst: will Obama be duped by Russia? What if he is has been going along with the plan all along? His thesis at Columbia was on the topic of bilateral nuclear arms reduction. I am for a reduction in nuclear arms if at all possible as much as the next man – indeed, total scrapping of the things would be desirable – but the Soviet Union used the Peace and arms reduction platform in an active measures kind of way during the Cold War to its own advantage and in an attempt to use (or actually abuse) the Summer of Love generation in the West, to attain the subjective and less than sincere ends of the Kremlin. With the KGB – oops, I mean the FSB – now running the show in Moscow, is there any reason to believe the objective or the methods have changed?

Posted by Juri | Report as abusive