Jan 29, 2009 | 00:51 GMT

7 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: A New Phase in U.S.-Russian Relations?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Russia has suspended its plans to deploy Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave because the new U.S. administration is "not rushing through" with plans to establish a missile shield in central Europe, Interfax reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed Russian military official. The same day, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos that, though it carried many well-worn anti-Western themes, ended with Putin wishing the new U.S. administration well — a shift from his scathing words for Barack Obama before the inauguration. These two statements appear to signal a momentary easing of tensions between Moscow and Washington. More importantly, they show that Russia is trying to feel out the contours of the Obama administration's foreign policy. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had announced the plans to deploy missiles to Kaliningrad — a tiny Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and the Baltic states — on Nov. 5, the day after Obama's election. The timing of that announcement (which was intentionally delayed to coincide with the election) was a pointed signal that Moscow would not pull any punches with the incoming administration. There has been some question over the status of Iskander missile production and deployment, and it is still not clear whether a unit even exists that is trained, equipped and prepared to deploy to Kaliningrad — but the announcement itself marked a deliberate escalation of tensions between Russia and the United States. Those tensions had already been growing for several years. When Putin took power as president in 1999, his goal was to restore Russia to some semblance of its former prominence as a global power, after the free-fall of the 1990s. A major component of his plan involved keeping the United States out of Russia's way – and especially out of the former Soviet region, which Moscow still considered its own proper sphere of influence. Thus, when George W. Bush took office in 2001, Putin attempted to form a close bond with his administration in order to win support and recognition of that sphere of influence. For example, Putin was the first world leader to call Bush following the 9/11 attacks, and Moscow offered to (and did) assist Washington in the ensuing war in Afghanistan. But whatever amity there may have been did not last long. While Russia continued to claw its way back from its post-Soviet nadir, the United States pushed back in 2004 by supporting the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the eastward expansion of the NATO alliance. From Russia's perspective, these actions were a betrayal. By the time Putin and Bush had entered their second terms, it was clear that a geopolitical standoff reminiscent of the Cold War had begun to form. Last year, frictions went beyond mere rhetoric, with Russia’s war against U.S.-allied Georgia and Washington’s signing of missile defense deals with Poland and the Czech Republic. Now different men hold the two presidencies — Medvedev took the helm in Moscow in 2008 and Obama was inaugurated just over a week ago — but the question remains whether anything fundamental has changed. Russian leaders may have not liked what Bush did, but they at least felt they understood him. Obama, only a few days into his administration, remains an unknown quantity from Moscow's point of view. In Russia, the change of administration did not mean a change in policy — effectively, the Putin regime remains in place. By the same token, Moscow did not take Obama's campaign pledge of "change" seriously, and leaders there have not expected any kind of rapprochement to follow his inauguration. Indeed, Putin made it quite clear in the days before Obama’s inauguration that the United States has a lot of work to do if it wants to regain Russia's trust any time soon — or ever. But the Kremlin is now beginning to rethink its position. The government in Moscow does not trust Obama, but it does recognize that Obama needs the Russians. He has pledged to expand the war in Afghanistan — but with NATO supply routes in Pakistan under serious threat, Washington needs another route into that theater – and the most readily available routes pass either through Russia proper or through former Soviet territories. And so U.S.-Russian relations are at a pivotal point. Russia is trying to figure out the new American administration, to see whether it is willing to make concessions in exchange for help on the Afghan issue. On that front, Washington is sending mixed signals. Obama has stated that he wants to rethink missile defense in Europe — a key condition for any deal with Russia — and has said in general terms that he wants to redefine NATO, certainly an interesting possibility from Moscow's perspective. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, however, that the redefinition of NATO would involve clearing up arms-reduction treaties with Russia and that the United States would focus on achieving energy security for Europe (meaning helping the Europeans find alternatives to Russian supplies). Both moves potentially threaten some of Russia's greatest means of leverage. In this context, the announcement that Russia is putting off the Kaliningrad missile deployment could mean one of two things. First, it could be a tentative gesture designed to sound out the new administration. The early days of the Obama presidency are an opportunity for Russia to find out how serious Obama and his team really are. The U.S. push to establish new supply routes to Afghanistan is proceeding too quickly for Russia to wait — so Moscow could be floating a trial balloon and watching for the response, while actively attempting to shape the new administration's behavior. In "pulling back" its deployment plans for the Iskander, Russia could be creating an opening for the United States to respond in kind. However, Moscow has chosen its opening gambit carefully: If there is no reciprocation, the deployment can move ahead – and the missiles would directly threaten U.S. ballistic missile defense installations in Poland once they are built. The other possible explanation for Russia’s announcement could be that the United States already has made an offer behind the scenes. Talks occurred on the sidelines of the informal Jan. 26-27 Russia-NATO Council meeting in Brussels. This was an ambassador-level meeting, though Russian envoy Dmitri Rogozin did hint at a possible arrangement in the works. On the first day of the talks, Rogozin blasted Washington for wanting to use former Soviet territory for shipments to Afghanistan, but he changed his tune on the second day, saying there was a possibility the United States and Russia could strike a deal. This could indicate that a preliminary deal has, in fact, already been struck. If so, the Kaliningrad discussion and Putin's comments, both of which came soon after, could have been a gesture to show Moscow's genuine interest in negotiating. This does not mean Russia could not change its mind once again on Kaliningrad. Provided that the missiles are built and there is a crew in place that can operate them, it is simply a question of deployment. Russia will not commit itself to any concessions recklessly, but it appears the Russians are opening a door for Washington to prove that change, indeed, has come.

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