One of the first priorities of the Obama administration last year was to “reset” strained Bush-era relations with Moscow. The first step in this policy was the abandonment of the proposed missile defense infrastructure to be placed in Eastern Europe. The 2007 plan to station 10 long-range interceptor missiles in Poland and an X-band radar station in the Czech Republic was supposedly too controversial and may even present Moscow with a security dilemma that would destabilize Europe. However, the abandonment of the 2007 plan and the revised 2010 plan has yielded no goods for the United States or the Obama Administration.
Why has this policy failed? The answer is that Russia never regarded the missile shield as a direct threat and is inclined to milk the badly needed political victory the Obama Administration delivered to them with September 2009 announcement. Moscow saw the missile shield, not as a security threat, but as an attack on its influence in Eastern Europe. Russia’s objection was political, not genuine.
When the 2007 plan for a “third site” in Europe (the first and second located in California and Alaska respectively) was abandoned, it had become orthodoxy for international relations and security specialists to cast disparaging doubts on the systems necessity and capability as well as its potentially destabilizing impact on international system. The abandonment of the third site was lauded as a pragmatic move by the new internationalists in the Whitehouse. The Administration expected reciprocation from the Kremlin, but it was not forthcoming. The Russian’s have not budged in their opposition to sanctions on Iran, they continue to wield gas transit and proposed pipelines like a broadsword in Europe and the Russian army maintains positions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in violation of a French brokered cease fire with Georgia in 2008.
Several myths about the missile shield have been debunked by the Pentagon’s own February 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report. The first, that the 2007 plan was destabilizing, it could neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent. However, the 2010 plan establishes for itself a goal of having a similar multi-stage missile in place in the region by 2020. It would have to in order to meet the technologically evolving threat from missile proliferators. The 2007 plan, in contrast, would have had long-range interceptor missiles operational by 2017. This is not as dramatic a shift as one would have thought given the tenor of the debate about this issue last fall.
The Russian armed forces commander in chief, Nikolai Makarov, for his part, continued to say the missile shield is directed against Russia, but the Kremlin has certainly changed its tune. In the 2010 plan, kinetic kill vehicles, by definition strictly defensive weapons which cannot be used for offensive means, are to be replaced by good, old-fashioned explosive warheads. Yet we do not hear the standard grumbling by Russian President Dimtiry Medvedev about the 2010 plan’s potential threat.
Furthermore, for all the talk about reducing the credibility of Russia’s nuclear stockpile, they are thrilled by the opportunity to reduce it, along with the United States, in bilateral disarmament talks. Nuclear disarmament is the only arena today where President Medvedev can sit across the table from President Obama on truly equal terms. This behavior, however, does not lend any veracity to the suggestion that Moscow is threatened by the 2007 plan for a third site in Europe.
The Obama Administration expected reciprocity from the Kremlin for its concession in Eastern Europe. While this was not an entirely unilateral concession there was no immediate quid pro quo and the lack of tangible benefits has hurt the Administration’s ambitions for Europe.
The Obama Administration’s “reset” policy, which aimed to create a reparative relationship between Russia and the U.S., is all but dead. The Russians appear perfectly willing to exploit internationalism in a disturbingly Hobbesian way. The Whitehouse has been rebuffed by a Kremlin establishment that learned long ago to pursue their naked national interests; Washington will not guard their interests for them. The Obama Administration, having been burned by a misreading of the Russian position, seems to be regaining its humility and is recalibrating the reset button.