Russia, missiles, and the leadership of President Obama

By Michael Vass | November 23, 2011

There has never been a real end to the back and forth battle over how many nuclear weapons, and what kind of defense from these missiles, are needed to protect Russia and the United States. Leaders in both nations constantly offer and counter-offer reductions, strategic placements, and alternative conventional weapon systems in a constant poker bluff with consequences that no one wants to face. But the recent comments from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indicates some new cards may be in play.

On Nov 23rd, President Medvedev took a strong stance against a proposed missile shield initiative by the United States. This is not a new stance as the dislike of the Europe-based shield has been a thorn since suggested by President Bush or originally imagined by President Reagan. But, the threat from Russia is emplacement of its own missiles on the borders of NATO countires – Poland and Lithuania – and is stirring up emotions. Neither Poland nor Lithuania have fond memories of Soviet control.

Of course President Medvedev has kept the door open on further discussions with the United States. Even as he rejects the proposed reasoning for the missile shield, to defend against the growing threat of a nuclear Iran.

This is the reward for the “reset” of relations with Russia that President Obama has brokered so far in his time in office. The ‘reset’ was made with a moderate, Medvedev, and did not consider the resurgence of the hard-liner Vladimir Putin, currently Prime Minister. Some feel that the announcement today is both an indication of the direction Putin plans to stride towards, as well as a chance to benefit from the weak international positions of the Obama Administration – which may not return with a 2nd election.

This announcement by Medvedev also comes after the US ended its sharing of information as per the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty – though this is a minor item as Russia has failed to live up to its side of that agreement for 4 years. Medvedev has asked that the US share information about the missile defense shield and be restricted in part by the concerns of Moscow. This last part is seen as highly unlikely as the US is uncomfortable about any restrictions in its defense plans, least of all from Russia.

Thus the table is set. Russia wants more information, that America has decided to end providing. Russia wants guarantees and restrictions on any missile defense in Europe, which America is unlikely to accept. Russia is also about to be led by a hard-line leader, while the current President is seen as weak internationally and is in trouble of losing re-election a year from now.

The good news is that Russia is unlikely to make any big moves until the Presidency is no longer in question. Too much aggression on its part and President Obama would be forced to act just to maintain any hope of re-election. If the actions of President Obama are not strong enough, then Russia almost guarantees a new President that will be less likely to capitulate to their requests – similar to the way President Carter’s actions with Iran led to President Reagan.

The bad news is that a hard-line President Putin may not care. Worse, he may see the distraction of the US election as the perfect time to press forward. He could possibly gain consessions from President Obama who desperately needs to maintain his liberal political base to even be competative in 2012. Any blowback from a new President would be delayed and potentially diminished by the change in Office as well as internal political deadlock in Congress.

Whatever the reasoning, it is likely that this will not be the full extent of the influence that Russia will play on the European missile defense shield or the 2012 Presidential election.


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