In a statement today, Obama’s office claimed that he has made “no commitment” to placing U.S. missile defense in Poland. The statement was prompted (read forced) by a post on the Polish president’s website claiming that Obama had committed to going forward with missile defense. Meanwhile, Interfax is reporting that the Russian Foreign Ministry considers the United States’ new proposals on missile defense to be ‘insufficient’ and Secretary of State Rice and Foreign Minister Lavrov met to discuss this issue in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt. Also, here is an AFP article with various boilerplate analysis of Medvedev’s Kaliningrad threat and Obama’s possible policy – the takeaways are that Medvedev’s threat was either (a) stupid, and will encourage Obama to puruse the shield, or (b) bluster and bluff, on which Moscow will not follow through. In support of contention (b), I would point out that Russia has brand-spanking new RS-24s that are reportedly capable of penetrating a missile defense shield and will enter into service next year. Russia’s real concerns problably are a mix of genuine worry over defense – the ABM shield enhances first strike capability and Russia fears our ability to rapidly develop and deploy new and unfamiliar technologies – as well as political considerations – think of our missile shield as the military equivalent of Russia’s acquisition of pipelines outside of its borders.
It was smart of Obama to keep all sides guessing as to where he really stands on missile defense – this is a flip flop that makes sense from a strategic point of view because a missile shield is more valuable as a potentiality that can be bargained over rather than an expensive and possibly non-functional actuality. Though this might be reading into the situation a bit too much, I would not even be surprised if Obama did in fact lead the Polish president to believe that he supports missile defense, or at least asked him to convey this, if only to allow him to issue a subsequent and non-specific denial. This puts Russia in the weakest position – paranoid that Obama is planning to complete the shield behind its back, and desperately hopeful that deep down Obama opposes the shield and might be convinced to kill the project.
Earlier today, President-elect Obama and President Medvedev spoke by telephone. This is the first communication ever between the two leaders, and likely marked the start of the awkward, painful, and stress-inducing phenomenon that will be US-Russia relations over the next four to eight years. Though Obama’s office did not issue a press release regarding the call, the Kremlin did provide this short statement:
The President of Russia congratulated Barack Obama on his impressive victory in the presidential elections and the convincing general success of the Democratic Party.
During the discussion both sides emphasised that relations between Russia and the USA are priority ones for both parties and that their positive development is crucial not only for the peoples of the two countries but also for the wider international community.
They noted that as the world is faced with serious problems of a global nature that require harmonious efforts between all countries, Russia and the U.S. face common challenges and bear a shared responsibility.
They expressed their desire to engage in constructive and positive interaction for the benefit of international stability and development. In this regard, Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama understand the need for a bilateral meeting in the near future.
Not much can be discerned from this statement and we’ll have to pray for leaks from the notoriously disciplined Obama staff. Of note, however, is the call for a bilateral meeting in the “near future.” The AP is reporting that it will likely not be at the November 15 G20 meeting, as Obama will likely not attend. This, however, is called into question by Russian FM Sergei Lavrov’s statement from yesterday that “[o]ne can expect a contact between President Medvedev and the US president- elect during the financial summit of the G-20 in Washington.” Apparently, most of the G20 want Obama to attend out of fear that the summit will otherwise be of no use. At the same time, attending the conference is fraught with risk for Obama, who might be seen as infringing on Pres. Bush’s authority, not to mention the problems associated with having to pick and choose who to meet with (and thus offend).
In any case, a personal meeting between Obama and Medvedev would hardly qualify as a ‘bilateral meeting’, which suggests a more formal, summit-like event with preparations on both sides. I will try to write a more substantive post on these issues and on a possible Obama-Medvedev agenda in the near future.