Saturday, September 19, 2009

Russian So Fast

Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev is President of Russia. He got there when Russian strong-man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (gotta love dem middle names!), termed out as President and moved into becoming the Prime Minister instead. Putin’s power rises and falls based on the price of oil, but he is the power in Russia. Oil prices are going up. Medvedev and Obama hit it off and seem to be able to communicate. Putin seemed to have based his international strategy on shoving American interests down, making Russian power and political agendas move up accordingly. He smiles at U.S. failures in Afghanistan and in trying to contain Iran. Medvedev seems to be a peace-maker. Makes for a big diplomatic mess, doesn’t it?

One of Putin’s biggest gripes has been the potential construction of two “defensive” missile bases – a shield for European and American interests against the potential of an Iranian missile strike – in Poland and the Czech Republic. These bases were announced during the Bush administration; Russia screamed like a stuck pig at the construction of missile platforms so close to Moscow, right in the middle of the former Soviet Union’s old stomping grounds in Eastern Europe. To then-President Putin, it was as if the United States were rubbing Russia’s face into powerless dirt.

Putin watched as the U.S. economy collapsed. While Russia fared badly in the early stages of the economic fall, as oil prices plunged, her vast reserves of natural resources – particularly oil and gold – suggested more than enough financial power to rise to the top again as commodity prices recovered. While Medvedev attempted a rapprochement with Washington, Putin pushed back – interesting game, huh… like these two leaders aren’t really talking with each other every day! They have effectively kept U.S. policy off-balance as President Obama has to deal with this seemingly contradictory duo.

So when Obama announced on September 17th that the two proposed missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic were not really necessary – ending the programs – the change of American policy provoked the following reaction, as noted in the September 17th Washington Post: “Russia said it was encouraged by the news but was waiting to study the U.S. decision. ‘We need to see the full text before we can make any comments. So far, I can say that a possible review of the U.S. position on missile defense would be a positive signal,’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told a press briefing, adding that no backroom deal had been struck between Moscow and Washington.” Putin called the decision “correct and brave.” Would Russia now assist American efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program? Time will tell, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Since these bases were also straining Czech and Polish relations with Russia, these two Eastern European powers shouldn’t be too upset at this change of heart, but reaction was surprisingly negative. “‘This move will be discussed here as another example of the Obama administration putting less into relations with Eastern Europe than his predecessor did,’ said Lukasz Kulesa, head researcher at the Polish Institute of International Relations in Warsaw. ‘That is seen as worrying.’… Former Polish President Lech Walesa criticized the decision, and former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek called it ‘bad news for the Czech Republic.’… Official reaction was more circumspect. In the Czech Republic, where polls have consistently shown a large majority of the public opposed the project, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus said, ‘I'm 100 percent convinced that this decision of the American government does not signal a cooling of relations between the United States and the Czech Republic.’” AOL News (September 17th)

Conservatives in Washington railed at the thought of contracting the U.S. missile shield that was directed at Iranian extremism. Citing better technology and the more effective use of sea-based missiles than what would be offered in the proposed land-based system, President Obama explained: “Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies… It is more comprehensive than the previous program; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost effective, and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland.” American intelligence seems to have concluded that Iran is no longer emphasizing the design and construction of longer-range missiles and that the new approach would be more than sufficient to contain Iranian aggression. Could this “floating missile shield” actually provide a greater threat to Russia, or is all of this about the appearance of power?

Fact is that there is a big treaty up for renegotiation involving the U.S. and Russia – finding a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expires in December. These missile bases were considered a barrier to reaching an agreement. Will Putin be assuaged enough? Does it matter? Some say we compromised our strategic defense to improve relations with a leader who will only find another reason to berate America. But then, seeing two large immobile targets – albeit missile bases – in a world of highly mobile and increasingly effective technology does seem a bit anachronistic.

I’m Peter Dekom, and this is just one more piece in a giant foreign relations puzzle.

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