The remarks of President Obama to Dmitry Medvedev over an open microphone, in which he promised that in a second term, he will have flexibility on the issue of global missile defense, shows that when it comes to U.S.–Russian relations, Obama is a stunningly slow learner.
The relations between a U.S. president and a Russian leader often follow a depressing pattern. The American leader charms (or thinks he charms) his Russian counterpart. The Russian leader begins to engage in criminal behavior, which gets steadily worse. Finally, something big happens — the invasion of Afghanistan, the nuclear poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London, the invasion of Georgia — and the realization dawns that the Russian is neither a Christian nor a friend and he has to be approached with realism.
Since taking office in 2008, Obama has had ample reason to reconsider the wisdom of relying on Russian goodwill, including Russia’s fixed elections and official involvement in the murder of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. But he persists in seeing the Putin regime as a “partner” and the real threat as coming from the political opposition in the U.S.
Obama hinted in his now-public conversation with Medvedev that he is ready to meet Russian concerns. In fact, he needs to be prevented from doing so because the steps the Russians are demanding will not lead to a real improvement in relations and are inimical to the security interests of the U.S.
Russian complaints about the threat from a U.S. missile-defense system to their nuclear deterrent are a fabrication. As Russia’s own defense experts have acknowledged, U.S. missiles pose no threat to Russia’s ICBM force that is intended to strike over the North Pole. The missiles intended for deployment in Europe are designed for a completely different purpose. It should therefore be out of the question to provide Russians with classified information about U.S. missile capabilities in order to convince Russians of what they already know.
In fact, Russia is not worried about a threat to its strategic missiles but rather to its tactical missiles. The defensive missiles to be deployed by NATO, if developed into a ramified network, might negate Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, which are useful not for retaliation against a Western attack, but rather for keeping U.S. allies under threat. Their potential role was demonstrated by Russia’s warnings of possible missile strikes against Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and, recently, Western Europe for either hosting missile-defense systems or joining NATO.
In response to the deadlock over European missile defense, Russia suggested a joint missile shield with both NATO and Russia at the controls, decisions made jointly, and Russia offered a specific area of responsibility. How this would have worked is hard to imagine. In any case, in November, Medvedev himself demonstrated why there can be no shared defense when he threatened to deploy missiles in the Kaliningrad region, which borders Poland and Lithuania, and aim them at U.S. missile-defense sites if there was no agreement.
Russia has, admittedly, expanded its cooperation with the U.S. over Afghanistan. As of May 2011, 170,000 U.S. personnel had transited Russian territory on over 1,000 flights. But the defeat of the Taliban is critical to Russia’s own security. On the other hand, Russia shows a complete disregard for the danger that Iran’s nuclear program presents to the West.
In November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report detailing Iran’s progress toward the development of a nuclear bomb. But on November 22, 2011, Russia refused to join in new sanctions, which, it said, “seriously obstruct advancement toward a constructive dialogue with Tehran.”
Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has received Russian support since 1992. Russia provided technical expertise, nuclear fuel, equipment, parts, and other components for the Bushehr nuclear reactor. As recently as 2007, the U.S. intelligence community accused individual Russian entities of providing ballistic-missile technology to Iran that helped Iran move toward self sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles. The Russian attitude was summed up in statements to Ariel Cohen, the Russian-affairs expert at the Heritage Foundation, by senior advisers to Putin and Medvedev during a trip which he made to Russia in 2010. As he related it, they told him that “Russia has good relations with Iran” and does not intend to ruin them because “Russia would be the last state Iran would target even if it got nuclear weapons.”
Finally, American concern for Russia’s supposed security interest will not put an end to the artificially cultivated hostility in Russia toward the West. Obama appears to be unaware of the extent to which the U.S. is depicted as a hostile power in the official Russian press and the reliance of Putin on anti-Western sentiments to deflect attention from the abuses of his corrupt regime.
During the election campaign, Putin repeatedly accused the West of seeking to meddle in Russian affairs. Demonstrators protesting against the fraudulent December 4 parliamentary elections were said to be in the pay of the State Department. In a major campaign rally in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, which many Russians were either paid or coerced to attend, he depicted Russia as under threat. “We will die defending Moscow,” he said. “The battle for Russia continues and we will win!”
After twelve years of passivity, Russians are finally beginning to protest the injustices of a lawless regime. This means that the tendency of the leadership to blame all problems on the West is going to increase, regardless of any actions by the U.S.
Obama’s incautious remarks to Medvedev regarding his future plans are not unprecedented. Henry Kissinger also was inclined to complain to the Russians about the problems he had with the political opposition. But they reflect a blindness to Russian realities. Contrary to what Obama may believe, Russians do not share a Western democratic psychology. It is reckless and uninformed to try to reach agreements with them over the heads of Congress and the American people that exchange serious security concessions for nebulous hints at goodwill — even when the microphones are turned off.