Motivations Behind the Obama Letter to Medvedev

Yesterday we posted some hostile reactions to President Barack Obama’s “secret letter” overture to the Russians to suspend the plans for a missile shield in Europe.  Today, we bring you a ringing endorsement of the letter, which Joshua Tucker of NYU argues will “isolate Iran, undermine Putin, and save us money.”  We can see Tucker’s point, and for some time we’ve argued that the missile shield is an invented distraction, but this familiar line of thinking is flawed by typical assumptions we see in the liberal camp:  that Russia has very much influence over Iran (they don’t), that the burden is upon the United States to give something up to a victimized Russia, and the idea that this concession would produce a change in Russian behavior.  The missile shield was never a good policy idea, but isn’t it also in Russia’s interest to prevent Iran from going nuclear?

But on closer inspection, it seems bizarre that this issue is souring relations between the two countries. A limited system comprising ten interceptors cannot threaten Russia’s ability to retaliate in a nuclear conflict, so Moscow need be concerned only if the current plan is just a down-payment on a more extensive future system. From Washington’s perspective, the system is an odd priority given that it is designed to protect Europe, not the United States, from attack. What’s more it remains unclear if the system even works. (Among other things, the rocket booster for the European interceptors has yet to be tested.)

By contrast, the United States has quite a lot to gain by reducingRussian concerns. First and foremost, securing Russia’s assistance andthereby potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear issue surely wouldimprove U.S. security more than a missile defense system in CentralEurope ever could, especially if this is part of a broader effort tosecure Middle Eastern peace.

Second, the economic crisis may be causing splits in the Russianruling elite, with Russia’s siloviki (current and ex-securitypersonnel) gathering behind Prime Minister Putin and a faction ofeconomic liberals grouping around President Medvedev. Combined with thefact that the economic crisis has likely already made foreignscapegoats–particularly “the West”–favorite targets of Russianleaders, additional conflict with the United States would likely onlyhelp the Putin faction, while mitigating supposed threats from the Westwould likely strengthen Medvedev. A U.S. decision to back away from themissile defense system would be portrayed as a victory in Russia andwould help Medvedev by demonstrating the virtue of more constructiveengagement with Washington. And in the long term, the United States islikely to be better off if the economic faction behind Medvedev doesn’tlose this power struggle, as the siloviki are likely to be moreantagonistic to the West.

Third, to the extent that the United States wants to “press thereset button” in its relations with Russia, resolving the issue ofCentral European missile defense might be one of the more painless waysto do so.

Finally, if dollars for defense are going to be harder to come by ina time of massive deficits, it is legitimate to ask whether a CentralEuropean missile defense system provides the best bang (or lack ofbang, in this particular case) for the buck in terms of protecting theUnited States. According to the Congressional Budget Office, theEuropean system could cost up to $14 billion.