The Geneva meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hardly attracted Russian spotlight. Moscow does not have much faith in a fast track success toward improving bilateral relations and resolving multiple thorny issues. Nevertheless, the Kremlin is viewing with hope some of the signals the Washington Administration has been sending Moscow, especially those concerning missile defenses in Europe, as helping to meet Russia’s objectives. Some Moscow observers believe that the Obama Administration’s approach to the U.S.-Russian relations that is currently taking shape is fraught with serious conceptual flaws.
The circulating idea of a trade off on the U.S. plans to set up a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe and Russia stepping up its activity toward containing Iran’s nuclear program rests on false premises. First, Moscow’s opposition to the U.S. plans to deploy its missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic is clearly overblown. Its nature is demonstrative rather than substantive. In reality, the Kremlin is confident the radar in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland are no threat to Russia’s security. Moscow is using the U.S. missile defense issue as a trump card in playing its traditional game of profiting by and whipping up tensions between the United States and Western Europe.
Moscow is clearly banking on driving a wedge between Washington and its NATO allies in both cases – whether missile defenses are fielded or not. In the case of the former, the Kremlin reckons its retaliation moves like deploying Iskander missiles close to NATO borders would spook “old’ Europe and cause its elites and population to protest the U.S. decision. In the case of the latter – the U.S. backing off on its decision to set up its missile defense shield – the United States will likely face a credibility crisis as a NATO security guarantor among the nations usually described as “new Europe.” Europeans will most likely perceive the U.S.-Russian missile defense deployment talks as proof of Obama’s weakness that is bound to undermine the NATO unity.
As for the U.S-Russian cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program, it looks like the Obama Administration is overrating Moscow’s potential and willingness to influence Tehran. Iran’s nuclear program seems to have become irreversible, and Russia can do little to end it. In addition, political forces in Russia wielding clout and enjoying links with the defense-industrial and nuclear complexes are strongly averse to terminating a highly lucrative nuclear cooperation with Iran.
Thus, if the Obama Administration is pinning hopes on Russia helping America to neutralize Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a quid pro quo for the U.S. promise to ditch its missile deal, they are unlikely to be borne out. The U.S.-Russian talks to contain Iran’s nuclear program will probably be difficult and protracted and play into Iran’s hands by offering it additional time to complete its nuclear technology development.
Thus, the progress along the path that seems to have been delineated at the Lavrov-Clinton meeting in Geneva and that could get an additional impetus at the Obama-Medvedev April Summit would solve no problems and would only exacerbate them.