[The following analysis arrived today in my mailbox from a frequent reader, well known to us for his acerbic wit. As usual, he wishes to remain anonymous, but it seemed that this one was worth sharing. – Editor] In his “state of the federation” speech, Medvedev hurled out a clear challenge to the new American administration: Russia will prepare a full retaliation if plans go forward to build anti-ballistic missile shield sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, beginning with the deployment of missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave. This is a clear message that Russia has no intention of backing off on the aggressive foreign policy positions it has adopted in recent months, and that there is nothing on the negotiating table for discussion with the new American administration. Take it or leave it. Or, perhaps, a more insolent “whatcha gonna do about it?”
There are several reasons to believe that the Russian government is quietly giddy with the election of Barack Obama, believing (correctly or incorrectly) that he will be lightweight in negotiations, and someone that the puffed-up Judo-chopping prime minister will be able to easily manhandle – much like he did with Nicholas Sarkozy after an infamous vodka drinking session on the sidelines of the G8.If John McCain had won the presidency, these same leaders would have been pleased to continue to enjoy rough relations with Washington – but on the other hand the Arizona Senator has a long track record of seeing right through typical Kremlin bulls**t, which would certainly cause some panic among the less clever siloviki. Let’s just say that they probably would think they would have to work harder.Besides, one does have to take into account the race issue when dealing with Russian perceptions of the United States and some general assumptions that could guide decisions. In Russia, Obama will be seen by some as a “cherny” (a widely used derogatory term meaning “black”) and some hopelessly racist Russians (believe me from experience, racists can be found among the poor and uneducated up to the very top of government in Russia) instinctively aren’t going to take a him seriously. To them, all chernye are stupid bush-bunnies. Don’t believe me? Just watch, and prepare yourselves for some significant underestimating.It’s a very trendy viewpoint today to say that Obama is going to struggle under the burden of impossible expectations. But when it comes to dealing with the Kremlin, he might enjoy the element of surprise.Obama, of course, is a lot slicker and more politically savvy than what the Russians are imagining him to be (just ask Hillary Clinton), so this should actually be fun to watch. But the message from Moscow as of today is clear – Russia is defiantly saying that the only thing on the negotiating table in US-RF relations is precisely how the US is going to go about admitting that Russia-the-superpower is back and demands to be dealt with as an equal. Whether or not this is a wise strategic move (Medvedev could have also used the opportunity to redefine relations with Washington, and use this rare tabula rasa) will remain to be seen, but it seems like a case of foreign policy on autopilot.As a side note, it’s also going to be important for the United States not to overreact to the provocation of the Kaliningrad news, which would play ideally into Moscow’s strategy. Deploying defense assets within any country’s national territory is a perfectly normal and legitimate thing that any sovereign state has the right to do. Furthermore, I would argue that it is not at all the same as, say, the United States installing missiles in Poland. Despite its location (surrounded by the EU), Kaliningrad is indisputably Russian territory, and putting missiles there is exactly the same as the US putting missiles in Alaska.