Russia's Sleight of Hand
Speaking at a press conference in Madrid on Tuesday, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said that it was “not productive” to link talks over a U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Europe with the perceived security threat from Iran, as proposed by Washington.
The topic came up as Medvedev spoke alongside Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at a press conference about a number of unrelated topics. The question he was responding to seemed to come out of left field, suggesting that the Kremlin planted the question, and perhaps the journalist. The question concerned a secret letter exchange between U.S. President Barack Obama and Medvedev — an exchange that was made public on Tuesday after a leak to The New York Times.
For the Russians, a quid pro quo on BMD and Iran is simply unacceptable. It isn’t because the Russians have heightened sensibilities — they are the masters of linking otherwise unrelated topics together for discussion and action — but because they are thinking much bigger these days. They want a grand bargain with the Americans, and they want it now.
Ever since it became clear in late 2003 that the war in Iraq would serve as more of a sandbag than a springboard for U.S. policy, the Russians have enjoyed the light streaming through a window of opportunity. Pretty much all U.S. ground forces are spoken for by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if both wars were declared over today, it would be more than two years before all forces could be withdrawn, rested and re-equipped for future deployments. U.S. expeditionary capability is currently limited to the Air Force and naval aviation – tools that are hardly small fry, especially when you are on the receiving end, but which are not particularly useful for blocking Russian moves in states that were part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine or Georgia. Blocking such actions can be done only with ground forces, and those forces simply are not available right now.
Thus, from the Russian perspective, the time to negotiate with the Americans about the broad spectrum of relations is now. They do not want a short list of quid pro quo arrangements that will let the Americans push off the bigger issues until another day. They want everything — and they mean everything — settled now, when their power is at a relative high compared to that of the United States.
The Russians do not want a simple rejiggering of existing disarmament treaties; they want fundamentally new ones that extend the current nuclear parity with the United States, codifying it to the finest detail possible. They want to shoot down the plans for BMD, a technology that one day could render the Russian nuclear deterrent obsolete. They want the United States to publicly recognize Russian dominance throughout the former Soviet Union, and — again, publicly — put an end to Western military, political and economic encroachment into Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asia.
Part of the ability to get such a grand bargain at such a fortuitous time, of course, rests in the ability to convince the other side that your own tools are even more robust than they may seem. You must convince the other side your rise to power is inevitable. It comes to shaping perceptions, and in this the Russians are peerless.
Remember Cold War propaganda? It was certainly on parade in Spain, not just in the shaping of a press conference where the quid pro quo comments garnered such attention, but in a phalanx of “deals” that the Russian delegation signed.
Most notable was a supposedly ironclad natural gas swap deal between state energy firm Gazprom and Spain’s Repsol. Under the deal, Repsol would gain access to Russian production sites in exchange for Russian access to the Spanish retail market. The centerpiece of the agreement involves liquefied natural gas (LNG), which would come from the offshore Shtokman field. Again the message was dramatic: Even European states that do not currently receive Russian energy are lining up to get access! There is one glitch: Shtokman is a pipe dream. Gazprom possesses neither offshore nor LNG expertise. Shtokman will be realized only if Gazprom pays someone to develop it — and that certainly isn’t going to happen during a global credit crunch.
Not to be outdone, the Russian state press had its own response to the New York Times leak on the quid pro quo of BMD for Iran. Editorials expounded that there was no deal to be had because the Russians had already suspended their plans to deploy nuclear-tipped Iskander missiles to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Since the Russians had unilaterally declared this, there was no need for BMD.
This issue is primarily one of fine print. While the Iskanders have been tested, there is no evidence that any have actually been deployed — to Kaliningrad or elsewhere — and even less evidence that the Russians have figured out how to mate a nuclear warhead to the missiles. Put simply, the Russian “concession” sounds great to the untrained ear — no nukes in Europe — but the Iskanders are not yet a reality, let alone a bargaining chip.
Propaganda and disinformation are as much part of Russia’s negotiating package as its nuclear capabilities and Latin American populist movements. Russia never really abandoned the tool, but we haven’t seen such aggressive message-planting for quite some time. Then again, the stakes haven’t been this high in a while.