So, Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama talk on the phone and agree that the U.S. and Russia need to do something about “stopping the drift in U.S.-Russian relations.” According to the White House, “”The presidents agreed that, as they were both new leaders from a post-Cold War generation they have a unique opportunity to establish a fundamentally different kind of relationship between the two countries.” Well, that’s nice, but age isn’t everything, and the suggestion that Obama and Medvedev — Putin’s appointed successor and Mini-Me — are two of a kind is a little iffy. Still, the rhetoric is predictable.
Now, what about the practice? Let’s see. First, a leading Russian news agency reports that Russia is halting deployment of the Iskander missiles that were Medvedev’s post-election-day welcoming gift to Obama, as an “olive branch” in response to the Unew administration “not pushing ahead” with missile shield installation in Poland and the Czech Republic. Then, the Kremlin doesn’t confirm the report and one anonymous official says it’s “pure fiction.” And all this means… what? Diplomacy á la Russe?
Of course, Russia’s “we’ll deploy short-range missiles on the Polish border if you go ahead with your missile interceptor systems” move was a blatantly stupid one in the first place, unless Russia wants the U.S. to go ahead with the missile shield deployment. There was a widespread perception, even before the election, that Obama would not be as gung-ho about missile defense as Bush. (Who’s right is another matter; while the bien pensant set often dismisses the idea of interceptors to defend against possible Iranian missiles as typical Bushian lunacy, NATO foreign ministers unanimously approved it last December.) But after Medvedev’s threat, going back on the missile defense plan will make Obama look like he’s caving in to Russian missile-rattling. The explicit linkage of the missile defense installations (which, even if directed at Russia, could at most neutralize 0.01% of Russia’s nuclear arsenal) and the Russian Iskanders will obviously make meaningful missile defense negotiations more difficult. Whether Russia actually wants continued antagonism is anyone’s guess.
The amusing thing about the missile-rattling is that, so far, the Russians are rattling non-existent missiles. Most experts believe they won’t have the industrial capacity to actually build and install them for years. On Grani.ru, analyst Vladimir Tyomny notes (link in Russian) that “if it weren’t for Obama giving Russia a pretext for a supposedly peaceful initiative, the Ministry of Defense would have had to rack its brains trying to figure out how to deploy in front of the enemy something that we don’t have.” Is the peace initiative on or off? Will they deploy the phantom missiles or not? Stay tuned!
(Cross-posted at RealClearPolitics.com.)