The First Meeting for Obama, Medvedev
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama will have their first sit-down meeting April 1 — one of the most anticipated bilateral meetings at the G-20 summit in London and, most likely, of the year. Most of the world sees Russia as going in to this meeting holding all the cards, but the United States could have some surprises prepared.
We have been following the negotiations between the United States and a resurgent Russia as the stakes have been raised — through U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in Central Europe, or Russia’s war with Georgia (a U.S. ally) and other ways. Already locked in a contest over who will dominate the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states, Washington and Moscow have seen their interests cross in peculiar ways of late, adding even more tension to their negotiations.
Both have issues they see as critical to sort out as the presidents meet in London. Russia’s stance is clearly defined: Moscow wants to eject Western influence from the former Soviet sphere — meaning it wants the United States to vacate military bases in Central Asia, give up on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, and make concessions concerning its protection of Poland and the Baltic states with the BMD installation and assistance in building up the Polish military. Russia’s other main demand is a renegotiation of nuclear treaties, such as START, with the United States. For its part, Washington needs Russia to renounce its support for Iran and to allow military supplies bound for troops in Afghanistan to transit the former Soviet space.
This has been a strange and uncomfortable turn for Washington, which has not had to give into Russia’s demands since the Soviet Union fell. Russia was far too weak in the 1990s and early 2000s to demand anything of the West, but it has strengthened. The United States has never really needed anything from Russia — until now.
The Obama administration has given Russia small assurances in order to move forward with U.S. interests. Washington has assured Moscow that it will return to the table on START, has allowed Russia to mediate U.S. use of Central Asia for military transport and has appeared to abandon its plans for NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. In return, Moscow has allowed a small shipment of NATO military supplies to pass through Russia and Central Asia, and it is trying to demonstrate some wavering in its support for Iran (though Russia’s position on Iran typically has been characterized by ambiguity).
Going into the Obama-Medvedev meeting, it seems clear that Russia plans to push the United States until the rest of its demands are met: abandon plans for BMD in Poland, cease assistance for the Polish military and essentially stop providing security for the Baltic states — though they are NATO members.
Considering that the situations in Iran and Afghanistan are deemed critical for Obama’s presidency, the Russians would seem to hold all the cards. This is the view of many in Europe — especially the Poles, who have been begging the United States not to discard its plans to provide security against Russia. However, there is a difference between what the situation seems to be and reality. It is becoming more apparent to STRATFOR that the United States not only will hold firm the issue of Poland and the Baltics, but it also could be ready to flip the balance of power back to its own favor.
The Obama administration has noticed that Russia has moved quickly from one demand to the next, without fully consolidating its gains. Consider Ukraine and Georgia as examples: Russia helped break the Ukrainian government apart and invaded Georgia while demanding that the United States pull back on NATO membership for these states — a demand to which Washington has yielded thus far. However, Russia declared the two states fully in its camp without consolidating its control over them entirely and eliminating all rivals. Instead, the Kremlin’s attention then shifted to its next demand of Washington.
There is a belief in the U.S. administration that, by moving on quickly in this way, Russia may have overplayed its hand. The issue of Poland is now front and center. Not only do we expect the United States not to budge on this, but for Washington to show that Russia’s earlier gains may not be as firm as Moscow might believe. Ukraine and Georgia too could be wrested away should Russia test the United States further.
In a symbolic gesture, the United States is moving a frigate, the USS Klakring, through the Black Sea, where it has made port calls at both Ukraine and now Georgia. The United States also could step up pressure on Russia by expanding and strengthening its alliance with Turkey. Obama is traveling to Ankara and Istanbul later this week; officials in Washington know Turkey’s growing strength in the Caucasus and in the Black Sea region would be a strong and strategic counterweight to Russia if Ankara aids the U.S. cause.
It’s not that the United States is declaring a willingness to counter Russia overtly; rather, Obama has been preparing the ground for his meeting with Medvedev. It will be made clear that the Russians are not as strong as they believe and that their best bet perhaps would be to content themselves with their winnings thus far and allow Washington to state its terms – unless, of course, the Russians are willing to pick a real fight.