A Swift Rejection of the Obama Overture

medvedev030309.jpgDuring his inauguration speech, U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear that his government would take a clean slate approach to international relations, with the goal of opening up dialogue with countries with whom relations had soured under the eight years of George W. Bush.  Even for the most recalcitrant, he offered the following: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

In case there were any remaining doubts that Russia would have the opportunity to redefine relations with Washington, it wasn’t too long after when Vice President Joe Biden came out with the “reset button” line.  If Russia were at all uncomfortable with the idea of improving relations with the U.S., this would have been bad news, but least Sergei Lavrov seemed to think it sounded like a great idea at the time.

So then today we had long-time Russia correspondent Peter Baker of the New York Times come up with the scoop of the week – a “secret” letter delivered from President Obama to President Dmitry Medvedev, offering that the United States would pull back on plans to build anti-ballistic missile shield sites in Poland and the Czech Republic if Russia offered greater assistance in prevented Iran’s nuclear proliferation.  No sooner had this news been published, than the FT reported that Russian President had swiftly rejected the naive, Carter-esque offer at a news conference in Spain:  “If we are talking about some sort of trade or exchange, then I can say that the question cannot be put that way. Its not productive.

My immediate suspicion is that the Obama administration leaked the letter to the Times as soon as it became apparent that the Russians were not interested (after all, the letter was originally delivered three weeks ago), which put Moscow in a very tough position that they aren’t likely to be happy about.

Why did Medvedev reject the deal?  Several theories are plausible (the internets are on fire with competing inventions).  For one, doing this bilateral quid pro quo with Washington goes against their national narrative of multipolarity – Obama offered Russia a taste of the past, whereby Moscow and Washington could play a divide-and-conquer game of Eastern Europe and Persia.  Another reason, which we have speculated numerous times on this blog in the past, is that Russia is truly not interested in abandoning its swing position on Iran, and currently finds confrontation more beneficial than cooperation.

The secret letter also put to the test a number of uncomfortable truths for both sides.  For example, in a way, the Americans proved their long-held and often disputed claim that the primary motivation to build these defensive missile shield bases (for missile technology that does not yet exist, mind you) was to help defend Europe from potential Iranian missile attacks (more technology that does not currently exist).  Once we got to this point, you’ll remember that a huge gap opened up between the rhetoric and reality of what these missile sites would mean (Russian military, for example, were very clear in their understanding that these sites posed no offensive danger to Russia – given the trajectories, they are completely ill-positioned).  Did the Americans only come up with this proposal for missile sites as something to be retracted later in exchange for a concession (which is positively Russian in strategy, mind you), or is the seemingly urgent concern on behalf of Russia just a red herring?

What kinds of absurd assumptions are we meant to draw from this latest rejection?  That nuclear proliferation in Iran isn’t also in Russia’s national interests?  That Washington is willing to pass Eastern Europe back into Russia’s sphere of interests in exchange for help on Iran?  Is there a potential Gazprom play to keep Iran under lock and key?  Surely the arms sales can’t amount to that much.  Are we to understand that Russia has no genuine interest in having the ABM sites in Eastern Europe withdrawn?

Barely more than two months into 2009, and the U.S.-Russia relationship is already producing some steady grist for the uninformed rumor mill.  Nobody can glean very much at this juncture, but such discouraging, public failures of statecraft reveal a deficit of political will on one side, and rapidly expiring patience and suspended disbelief on the other.  How many more chances will Obama and Mevedev/Putin be willing to give each other before we are back to our old dynamic?

Photo: President Dmitry Medvedev attends a signing ceremony in the Moncloa Palace in Madrid March 3, 2009. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has received a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama, Medvedev‘s spokeswoman said on Tuesday after being asked about a report in the New York Times.(Reuters Pictures)