The Obama administration, which zealously polices the policy making corpus for leaks like a plastic surgeon, was surprised -- but not really surprised -- to read about a secret letter that President Obama sent to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seven weeks ago. Obama's message was supposed to be about tone: the U.S. is serious about working with Russia to assuage their concerns about a missile defense system in Europe provided that Russia is serious about using its leverage against Iran to prevent the regime from taking the final proliferation step. Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic interpreted the letter, which the U.S. insists was leaked by the Russians, as Obama's laying the groundwork for a deal. After all, Obama and his foreign policy aides are missile defense skeptics. The reality, according to administration officials, was that Obama's message was deliberately open-ended. Let Russia decide what Obama meant to say; don't foreclose any possibility; don't counter saber-rattling with the type of rhetorical gestures that Dick Cheney was famous for, and which served to reinforce the Russian people's negative perception of the United States. As with his video message to Iran, the letter was intended as an indication that the door to a "reset" was open.
A few days after the 2008 election, Medvedev used his first speech to the Duma to rally public opinion against the United States. The world was celebrating Obama's election, and Russia remained in a defensive crouch after last summer's Georgian incursion. The new Russian President wanted to make a point about missile defense. He announced the deployment of yet-to-be built Iskander missiles to a part of Russia within range of the Czech Republic -- one of the countries that wants a new U.S.-built NATO missile battery to protect against threats from (Iran and) Russia. But it really was only a point, one meant to, in the words of Time's Russia correspondent, whip up "nostalgia and nationalism." Russia has not been immune to the effects of an economic downturn and will soon be forced to reconfigure the balance between its spending on guns and butter.
We're approaching the 20-year anniversary of the end of the Cold War, and yet it is tempting to interpret the U.S.-Russian relationship in the lingua franca of Reagan and Gorbachev. Neither side wants to "lose face." Russia, manly, bearish, nationalistic, wants to "assert itself." I'm no expert here, but it seems to me that the chief political conflict between Russia and the West is no longer about ideology; it's about resources, primarily energy. No major country is more intimately tied to the rise and fall of energy prices than Russia; no currency is more dependent on the status of gas reserves than the rouble.
Even as Russia's ability to provocate is waning, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons remains the most acute foreign policy objective of the Obama administration, and Russia, given its close (albeit complicated) relationship with Iran, is the critical lever. In late February, Russia suddenly stopped shipment of new S-300 missiles to Iran, postponing delivery until Medvedev and Obama had the chance to talk in person. They'll do so tomorrow. Today, Medvedev took to the pages of The Washington Post. On the one hand, he doesn't mention Iran. On the other, he hints that mutual efforts in Afghanistan, along with other "influential players," may be the way to repair the U.S.-Russian relationship. On the one hand, he writes of trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and NATO on "issues of strategic stability and nuclear security." (Strategic stability is Russian shorthand for the perceived imbalance of the Bush administration and EU's plan to strengthen NATO's hand at the expense of Russia -- and more generally, the common cause it shares with Iran in wanting to circumscribe the influence of a single superpower in Eurasian affairs.)
Medvedev writes about the "toxic assets" on the diplomatic balance sheet. Getting rid of Iran will be as tough as valuing a tranche of Citigroup securities. The connective tissue between Russia and Iran is tough; Russia's support for the Iranian regime is based on leverage and mutual interest; it cannot be snipped until the benefits of the longstanding alliance (a market for Russian goods, non-interference by Iran in Muslim parts of the old Soviet empire, a counterbalance to U.S. hegemony) outweight the costs. What are the costs? A nuclear Iran may become less dependent on Russia. Others are harder to figure out. And so the truth is that Russia has a stronger hand here; Russia realizes this and Medvevev seems to be in an expansive mood, willing to concede that because his country's support for Iran is based on practical (material) concerns rather than ideology, Russia can use its influence productively. In this way, the "strategic stability" between the U.S. and Russia depends quite a bit on the markers the world's major economic powers lay down this week.
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