Russia Feels the Obama Effect

Even amid the general euphoria last Election Day at the gaining of America’s highest office by an African-American, there was still a sprinkle of rain on that parade. (Here at €S we are always on the look-out for the rain on the parade!) Do you remember? It was right on November 5, the day after, that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev offered his own form of congratulations by announcing that Russia intended to deploy short-range missiles (presumably nuclear-capable) to Kaliningrad, that little piece of Russia lying on the Baltic Sea, to the West of Lithuania – and just to the North of Poland, where the US still has signed a treaty paving the way for it to install an anti-missile system, controlled by radar itself stationed within the Czech Republic. Russia has always been sore about that anti-missile system, apparently fearing that it is aimed against itself some way and/or that the deployment would hinder her own capability to sway/intimidate her former satellite states in Eastern Europe, so that this deployment to the Kaliningrad enclave threatened to become the start of a Cold War-like missiles confrontation.

Now a somewhat more reassuring word comes from Germany’s paper-of-record, the FAZ: Russia stops rocket-deployment in Kaliningrad. The article cites the Russian news-agency Interfax as quoting a unnamed member of the Russian General Staff to the effect that this step was taken “since the new American government seemingly is distancing itself from forcing through the setting-up of parts of the planned anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.”

So forget about any Baltic confrontation; just as he seems to have done with al-Qaeda, President Obama and his benevolent aura have pacified, for now, another hostile part of the world. But don’t by any means forget about this issue entirely, for the funny thing is that it’s probable that the Russian authorities are giving Obama way too much credit. He has not made his position clear on whether to go ahead with the missile-shield deployment simply because this issue is presumably way down on his priority-list. Once he or his people get to it, it’s overwhelmingly likely that he will decide to go ahead, so that the Russians will resume feeling aggrieved. The treaties with Poland and the Czech Republic are certainly already in place to allow for the deployment; presumably the Pentagon money to pay for the equipment and its deployment has already been budgeted, at least for the initial stages; and furthermore there has no been no indication of thinking coming out of the Obama transition camp second-guessing this deployment. Quite the contrary, in fact: William Lynn, the Obama administration’s candidate for the #2 position at the Pentagon, is fast attracting criticism because his appointment would seem to violate the anti-“revolving door” lobbyist rules that Obama just issued last week, as he has heretofore been lobbying the Defense Department as a senior vice-president for Raytheon. Nonetheless, both the Executive and Legislative Branches are willing to grant the waivers to that new anti-lobbying policy to get him into that position in the Pentagon hierarchy anyway – and Raytheon is also heavily involved in delivering the equipment for that anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe.

UPDATE: Moritz Gathmann, the correspondent in Moscow for Der Spiegel, checks in on this issue with a more analytical piece: Obama’s new political course: Russians start charm-offensive. And he is more hopeful that the planned US missile-shield deployment will not happen after all, keying off of an interview Zbigniew Brzezinski is said to have recently had on Polish radio. (Brzezinski was National Security Adviser under President Carter, but has also been an advisor on foreign policy to Obama.) On that broadcast Brzezinski judged that the American Congress has become newly skeptical about spending money for such a project – which, after all, would create new jobs mainly for a bunch of Poles and Czechs – in these straightened times. Building on that, Gathmann speculates about some grand bargain in which President Obama goes ahead and cancels the deployment, and rules out NATO membership for the Ukraine and Georgia in the bargain – in exchange for the Russians allowing American supply-lines to Afghanistan to traverse their territory. Agreements like this one apparently already exist enabling the German and French forces there to send their supply columns through Russia, and, indeed, what has up to now seemingly been the only ground-conduit for American forces – namely from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass – has proven to be rather unreliable.

One question that comes to my mind, though, is that Russia does not actually border Afghanistan; it is Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan that do, and these are by now supposedly independent states. Are they sufficiently “unindependent” that Russia, in effect, negotiates transit-rights over their territories for them? Looking further at a map, if up to now the Americans have been using the Khyber Pass, then their source of supply must be Pakistan, specifically its port, Karachi. (It’s certainly not going to be the ports in the country on the other side, Iran.) Given that, though, it’s hard to figure out how passage through any other country, even the nearest-lying Tajikistan, actually could offer an alternate solution to the overland-supply problem now faced by American forces in Afghanistan.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Yes, yes, I’ve been stupid, thanks anyway to those who wrote in to let me know (especially “LHop in London” for his comments)! For those few who haven’t figured it out on their own by now, it’s probably not a matter of land transit rights, but rather of air rights – i.e. access to usefully-situated air bases – where Russia could get involved in aiding the NATO supply effort in Afghanistan. And that’s true even when the air bases in question are not strictly speaking “Russian”; I’m writing this update right after posting an entry to this weblog about how it seems Russia does call the shots even when it comes to Central Asian bases – and how prospects for the sort of Euro-missiles-for-Afghanistan-help deal between Russia and the US seem to be receding quite rapidly.

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