Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Biden and Russia: All Things Reconsidered

A few weeks ago I wrote a post praising President Obama's handling of Iran's potential nuclear enrichment program with clever geopolitical finesse (see September 26 post). At the time, my view was that Obama had offered some degree of appeasement to the Russians in the form of withdrawing plans for a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russia's agreement to help pressure Iran on its rather defiant nuclear posturing.

Seems I was wrong.

For years, I have read George Friedman's work in STRATFOR, an online publication. Friedman has a great deal of expertise in foreign affairs and often gives me insights I had not considered. An great example of this is in an email he sent out to prospective subscribers teasing us with an article he had just completed entitled "Russia, Iran, and the Biden Speech."

Last week Vice-President Biden was
touring Central Europe, directly challenging Russia in a series of highly publicized speeches. According to Friedman, this is not another incident of Biden going rogue or off-message. This was something calculated by the Obama administration, although exactly what that political motivation might be is a bit vague.

According to Friedman: "(Biden) reasserted American commitment to their security and promised the delivery of other weapons such as Patriot missile batteries, an impressive piece of hardware that really does enhance regional security (unlike BMD, which would grant only an indirect boost). Then, Biden went even further in Romania, not only extending his guarantees to the rest of Central Europe, but also challenging the Russians directly. He said that the United States regarded spheres of influence as 19th century thinking, thereby driving home that Washington is not prepared to accept Russian hegemony in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Most important, he called on the former satellites of the Soviet Union to assist republics in the FSU that are not part of the Russian Federation to overthrow authoritarian systems and preserve their independence."

Why offer to pull out the BMD system and then present a newly threatening policy to Russia? According to Friedman there are three possibilities. One, the Obama administration was disappointed by Russia's less than clear appreciation of the US attempted BMD appeasement. Two, the administration did not appreciate the negative effects the appeasement would have in Central Europe, so they sent Biden out to calm the concerns of nations like Poland and Romania. Three, the administration "might not yet have a coordinated policy on Russia."

Obama is often difficult to read but he does seem to be
presiding over an coordinated missile policy. As often happens with Obama, what seems to be lack of coordination and vacillation, turns our to be actually a rather sophisticated strategy.

Any way you slice it, however, what I took originally as a smart geopolitical move by the administration has turned out to have
a rather polarizing effect on Russia, particularly if the original intent was play Russia (and China in its turn) off Iran. (Which now looks like an incorrect interpretation on my part.)

In fact, according to Friedman, Russia has been pleased for years that the US has gotten itself bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and has used this opportunity to attempt to reassert itself in Central Europe. Now, the US is seeking to reverse the situation by politically challenging Russia's would-be hegemony in Central Europe.

But, where does that leave us with the Iranian situation? Something has changed over the past few weeks in the way Obama's foreign policy advisers view Russia in regards to Iran. Friedman suggests that the determination might have been made that the US doesn't need Russia in dealing with Iran. "Biden might be trying to get the Iranians to take American threats seriously," Friedman writes.

He concludes: "The American decision to threaten Russia might simply have been a last-ditch attempt to force Tehran's hand now that conciliation seems to have failed. It isn't likely to work, because for the time being Russia has the upper hand in the former Soviet Union, and the Americans and their allies -- motivated as they may be -- do not have the best cards to play.

"The other explanation might be that the White House wanted to let Iran know that the Americans don't need Russia to deal with Iran. The threats to Russia might infuriate it, but the Kremlin is unlikely to feel much in the form of clear and present dangers. On the other hand, blasting the Russians the way Biden did might force the Iranians to reconsider their hand. After all, if the Americans are no longer thinking of the Russians as part of the solution, this indicates that the Americans are about to give up on diplomacy and sanctions. And that means the United States must choose between accepting an Iranian bomb or employing the military option."

Anyway, what I initially took as finesse looks more like a shifting experiment by the Obama administration today. It is certainly a complex situation. We apparently believe we have enough leverage with
France and Britain on board for possible sanctions (or something more serious) against Iran and that we can now disrupt Russia while facing down Iran at the same time. If correct, it is certainly a more ambitious agenda, but far removed from the broader consensus building I expected from Obama.

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