Kremlin Tempted to Test Obama

Yevgeny Volk /

Russia President Dmitry Medvedev (Photo by Anatoli Zhdanov/Newscom)

MOSCOW — The Russian elite are clearly unenthusiastic about Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. Moscow believes Obama has adopted a stance similar to the incumbent administration’s on most of the thorny issues that are dividing the United States and Russia — missile defenses in Eastern Europe, NATO enlargement, Russia-Georgia conflict and Iran’s nuclear weapons program — and that, so far, he has no intention of making concessions to the Kremlin. Thus, the Moscow establishment is convinced it is too early to expect any progress in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

In addition, Moscow turns a wary eye toward Obama’s foreign policy team. Prevalent is the view that people with anti-Russian leaning are dominant among his foreign affairs and national security advisers. The Russophobes (which is the current buzzword) allegedly include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, and well-known foreign-policy expert Michael McFall.

The Kremlin proceeds from the assumption that Obama has little experience in international affairs and so his actions are by far less predictable than those of John McCain. The Kremlin is highly tempted to test his strength and see how prepared he is to firmly defend the U.S. interests and meet Russia halfway on vital issues. The present situation strongly echoes the early 1960s when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev also chose to test a young and internationally untried President John F. Kennedy. It is common knowledge that the testing brought about the Berlin and Caribbean crises.

There is some evidence the Obama test has been launched. Dmitry Medvedev’s Nov. 5 state-of-the-nation address was clearly timed to the completion of the U.S. elections and directly challenged Washington. Such is the interpretation of Medvedev’s statement concerning Moscow’s intentions to deploy Iskander surface-to-surface missiles in the Kaliningrad Region, close to NATO’s borders, in response to the U.S. fielding missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Should the plan get implemented, Russian missiles will be able to hit U.S. anti-missile facilities in Poland and possibly the Czech Republic. Today Russia cannot boast of possessing such missiles in sufficient numbers. Medvedev’s declaration is rather a negotiating position designed to exercise additional pressure on Washington.

The Kremlin is banking on the hope that in the conditions of the economic and financial crises, Obama may prove tractable under Russia’s pressure and cave in on missile defenses. That is why Moscow flatly spurned as unacceptable the White House’s new missile defense proposals to permit Russian representatives access to the U.S. military facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Kremlin expects the protracted talks to play into Russia’s hands. It is unwilling to negotiate with the incumbent administration hoping that better terms could be agreed on with Obama.