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Mar 31, 2009 | 01:57 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: What Russia Will and Won't Trade With Washington

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.
The Russians have been projecting optimism about upcoming meetings with the Americans in Europe, reinforcing the “reset button” theme that the Obama administration had introduced. However, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev gave a speech Sunday night with a somewhat different sensibility. Regarding the U.S. proposal that Washington would make concessions on ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Europe in return for pressure against Iran by Moscow, Medvedev said, "I don't think that any trade-offs are possible in this respect. Any information as to replace one issue with another one is not true; this is not a serious talk. But I have no doubt that we shall discuss both issues — that of ABM (anti-ballistic missile) defense and of the situation around Iran's nuclear program. I believe that President Obama thinks the same way." Medvedev went on to say, "As regards the ABM, as regards the deployment of the notorious capabilities in Europe, our position has always been clear: We should not create ABM elements — a comprehensive antimissile system is required. And Russia is ready to become engaged in this system, because we are also interested in securing our country and our citizens from threats posed by certain problematic states. But the point is that this should be done through common efforts rather than by deploying any missiles or radars along our borders when a real doubt arises as to what lies behind all this. Is it done to make us nervous or in order to really prevent some threats?" In other words, there can be no quid pro quo on Iran. However, the Russians would entertain a comprehensive ABM system, jointly developed and presumably under some sort of international control, as opposed to American BMD installations along Russian borders, since the Russians have doubts about the real motives behind the deployment. We translate the Russian position in this way. First, Russia’s relationship with Iran is too valuable to Moscow — and too painful for Washington — to be traded for a BMD installation in Poland. The price for Iran will be much higher than that. Second, the real issue is not the BMD system in Poland but the longer-range plans the United States might have on the Russian border. The Russians are far more concerned about other U.S. bases in Poland and other arms deliveries to the Polish military and to the Baltic states that are part of NATO. It is the unstated plans that make the Russians nervous, not the BMD system. The solution Moscow proposes would eliminate the problem — for Russia. First, it either would eliminate the need for bases in Poland or at least place those facilities under international control. Second, it would represent a transfer of critical technology to Russia and to all participants. The United States is not going to internationalize its hard-won and costly BMD technologies entirely. Washington has offered to share some technology to enable the Russians to build their own system, but not to write a blank check, or to avoid placing installations in Poland that make Russia nervous. This last is the critical point. The Russians don't want the United States using Poland as a base for containing Russia, and they fear the BMD is simply the first of many military installations. Even less do they want U.S. and NATO forces deploying into the Baltic states. They might trade pressure against Iran in return for guarantees that Poland and the Baltics would serve as a neutral buffer zone, but not for anything less. If the Americans concede on this point, then NATO — under internal pressure already — would be dead. It would mean that the guarantees built into NATO membership would not apply to Poland and the Baltics, given that NATO would have guaranteed the Russians not to deploy defensive forces there. Moreover, the Americans are not certain the Russians have all that much influence in Iran. They might trade BMD for a major Russian effort. The United States won't neutralize part of NATO in exchange for a good try. As with the rest of the meetings, there is a superficial collegiality in place. Beneath the surface, it is a very different meeting. Obama tabled his Afghanistan plan on Friday, setting up a discussion of European contributions to the effort. Medvedev rejected the American proposal on BMD-Iran last night, letting the Americans know — if they didn't already — that there would be no deal. Everyone is putting their cards on the table. It is not clear whose cards are better at the moment, but it is clear the stakes are getting higher.

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