Wrongfooting the Russians

November 7, 2008

While the rest of the world engages in some transcontinental slapping of Obama’s back, the Russians have decided that now is a good time to reveal their national paranoia about the US’s missile defence system.

A lot of the commentariat are calling this an interesting opening move. I’m not convinced. It betrays an implicit assumption that Medvedev is making – that the US system produces leaders with exactly the same policy priorities. Medvedev doesn’t appear to have realised that the Russian method for selecting leaders is not repeated across the ocean.

Obama has a free hand to act in any way he likes, and can, unlike Medvedev, overturn his predecessor’s mistakes. While Bush always claimed that the US missile defence system was aimed at Iran, his ignoring of a Russian offer to use one of their radar systems as part of the network made it appear that it was directed at Russia. This is part of what has led to the increased tension between Russia and the West.

Now, a lot of commentators have expressed concern that Obama will scrap the missile defence system, and thus appear weak as a consequence. But there’s no need to. While he would probably prefer to spend the money elsewhere, I suspect that his response to Medvedev will be to reopen negotiations on bringing them into the missile shield. More than anything else, this will force the Russians to admit they were wrong about the target of the defence system, and leave them looking a bit silly. Obama gets a clear foreign policy break with Bush, a diplomatic victory over the Russians, and increased security for his allies in Europe. I believe this is the best possible option at this juncture.