A Threatening Farewell from U.S.-Russia Summitry

medvedobama070909.jpgCharles Krauthammer at the Washington Post is catching a lot of flak for his article today which argued that Obama’s reset diplomacy with Russia and the new agreements to cut nuclear stockpiles was somehow a gesture of capitulation, selling the farm, etc.  I personally find any pro-nuclear, pro-weapons arguments a little hard to swallow (the pro-nuke fellows do not sufficiently account for the threat of non-state actors getting their hands on these materials), but Krauthammer makes a very good point about the Kremlin’s success in creating linkage between offensive and defensive weaponry.

Leaving the predictable arguments aside for a moment, Krauthammer’s article is driven by a core question that has been coming up again and again and Obama as Medvedev whisked from Moscow to L’Aquila.  Is Washington wasting its time by trying to work with Russia?  Is the current leadership in Moscow really interested in improved relations, and despite what are logical and rational mutual interests, is there any real will?

Most of the time we prefer to believe them when the Kremlin says they want improved relations, but time, patience, and excuses are running out for self-sabotage. Today’s news doesn’t help much.  Just in case anybody thought the summitry was going a little too well, Medvedev concluded his affable week with Obama by resurrecting a threat to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad (as though the regular threats to bomb Warsaw weren’t enough).
Take a moment to recall the original embarrassingly timed and tactically miscalculated threat from November, 2008, way back when Obama had just won his historic election, with world leaders from Iran to Zimbabwe to Venezuela expressing (at minimum) cautious goodwill and congratulations that a new chapter might open in relations.  Then, like a lightning bolt struck into the middle of America’s short-lived euphoric picnic, came the Kaliningrad move.  The siloviki can be such party poopers.

Both then and now, the theories explaining such a confusing move are abundant.

Last November, we heard many different opinions on why the Russians would want to open the new chapter with the incoming administration on such a sour note.  Some people thought it was just a creative attempt at creating a bargaining chip – giving the Kremlin the option later on to offer to cancel its plans for the Iskanders in exchange for something else.  Others saw a domestic focus, with the goal of keeping alive the myth of the military menace while also painting Obama into a corner.  There could also be the theory that Russia is worried about Kaliningrad straying out of the RF, and could help stir some nationalism with some good old fashioned major arms movements (indeed, it even sprouted a tourist industry).

One of the more interesting things I found in this blog’s archives on this issue was a letter to the Wall Street Journal from a former military officer, which argued that Washington should just go ahead and let Russia move Iskanders to Kaliningrad, as there would be no harm in this (the possibility of them daring to escalate too remote) while at the same time the government goes bankrupt again.  Calling in the bluffs, as it were.

The sudden and unexpected revival of the Kaliningrad threat following the G8 Summit appears to signify something different to me:  the price that Medvedev is having to pay for success.

Sources in Russia I have spoken with this week talk about the president being under tremendous pressure from competing groups of elites in the Kremlin.  I wouldn’t even rule out if the statement was pre-cleared with the American delegation.  When Obama arrived in Moscow at the beginning of the week, he made clear delineations between liberals and hawks within the government, pledging to work with and encourage the former, while disapproving of the latter, who have “one foot in the past.”  At least in tentative terms, Medvedev’s approach is working – Russia will get more of what it wants from Washington if they follow his perestroika-lite – and this infuriates the nationalists.  When we hear Medvedev suddenly going bellicose and talking about Kaliningrad, he speaking to a very specific audience.

Getting back to the core question of whether or not the United States and Europe can even take what Russia is saying about its interests in cooperation at face value, I am disturbed by the very strong contrast between the Kaliningrad threat and the very open and encouraging comments from U.S. military officials on building a joint defense base inside Russia.  Are we witnessing some kind of self-sabotage?  An attempt to derail a project that they didn’t want to happen anyway, but require that its failure by the fault of the United States?

With regards to motives and intentions, Russia is running out of time to play games on these reasonable offers to do the missile base jointly, or their refusal to sign up on the anti-nuke proliferation pressure on Iran, which would guarantee the cancelling of the Polish and Czech missile shield.

What we are watching appears to be game of who can make the other player behave irrationally first.