Barely two weeks ago, we noted that the Obama Administration was working on some sort of "missile swap" with Russia. At that juncture, no would would confirm the deal, which was criticized in the U.S. (and abroad) as dangerously naive. But, senior officials never bothered to deny the report, so the rumor clearly had credibility.
Now, The New York Times has confirmed that the U.S. did, indeed propose a deal, identical to one outlined in mid-February. In a letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Mr. Obama said our proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe would be "unnecessary," if Moscow would pressure Tehran to halt its nuclear weapons and missile development programs. In other words, the U.S. was prepared to abandon missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, in exchange for Russian assistance with those troublesome Iranians.
The Times' account of the secret letter, delivered to Mr. Medvedev three weeks ago. also reveals Moscow's response: a resounding nyet.
“If we talk about some bargain or exchange, I can say that the issues were not raised in this way, because it’s counter-productive,” Mr. Medvedev said at a news conference in Madrid, where he was meeting with the Spanish prime minister.
“What we are getting from our U.S. partners shows at least one thing, that our U.S. partners are ready to discuss the issue,” he said. “That’s good, because only a few months ago we were getting different signals — that the decision has been made, there is nothing to talk about, that we will do everything as it has been decided.”
Officials on both sides tried to paint the letter as more of an incentive, and less of a deal. In a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr. Obama also suggested that the NYT had mis-characterized his message to the Russian president.
That, of course, is little more than spin. The "incentive" is clear enough; if the Russians can lean on Iran, we'll forget about installing that BMD radar in the Czech Republic, and those interceptor missiles in Poland.
Moscow has long opposed the missile shield, viewing it as a direct threat to its strategic forces. So that begs an obvious question, namely, why would Russian turn down such an offer?
Their rationale is equally apparent. Mr. Medvedev and his "controller," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, want to have it both ways. Or should we say three ways?
Given its druthers, the Kremlin wants to retain Iran as a client state, maintaining big-ruble projects like the Bushehr nuclear reactor, which was completed and started with Moscow's assistance. And Moscow wants to sell more military hardware to Tehran, including the S-300 air defense system. That deal alone is worth a reported $800 million. Follow-on sales and support contracts will push the total price tag into the billions.
Additionally, Russia wants the U.S. to give up those BMD sites in Europe. That's why the Obama letter probably brought cheers from Russian leaders. For a little "pressure" on Iran, Moscow would achieve one of its primary security and foreign policy goals. There was no criteria for how such pressure would be defined (or applied), and how we would measure the success of Russia's diplomatic efforts.
Still, the Russians turned us down. Moscow clearly believes it can have its way with Mr. Obama, and give up almost nothing in return. The Russians have watched the new administration react with indifference to their assistance at Bushehr, and (reported) plans to export the S-300 to Iran's military. Why extend a helping hand to such a passive American administration, one that is clearly unprepared to hold Moscow accountable.
The Kremlin also understands that the Obama team is prepared to scale back--or even cancel--missile defense programs on its own. Vice-President Biden's offered only a tepid "endorsement" of BMD in a recent speech in Germany, and Congressional Democrats are talking about establishing unrealistic performance standards for future tests of the missile shield. On its present path, it's not unrealistic to think the Obama Administration will get rid of the European sites and other missile defense programs.
Call that a win-win-win for the Russians. No wonder Mr. Medvedev says there won't be any "haggling" over the Obama letter.