09.18.09

Your Move, Mr. Putin

Obama’s decision to drop the planned missile shield in Eastern Europe is hardly a bow to the Kremlin—the program will continue on a larger scale. The real question, says Michael Idov, concerns Putin’s side of the bargain.

President Obama has chucked overboard another item of baggage bequeathed to him by George W. Bush: the missile-shield initiative that would deploy 10 interceptors in Poland and a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic. To say that this program chafed Russia is to say nothing: The Kremlin even thought it droll to wave Obama into office by announcing—on November 5, 2008!—that it would place nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, Russia’s long-suffering Westernmost enclave, as a countermeasure. And now, seemingly with no immediate provocation, the radar is intercepted and the interceptors are off the radar. What gives? Is Obama capitulating before the Kremlin? Should the hawks be vindicated in their vision of the president (or any Democrat, really) as a foreign-policy weakling?

Hell, no. The beauty of this move is that it costs the U.S. absolutely nothing. The program itself is not being shuttered or downsized—quite the opposite; the missile shield will now be implemented in a kind of modular form but on a larger scale, throughout Europe. (“Possibly,” points out The New York Times in a hilariously dry aside that undermines its own headline two paragraphs in, “even in Poland or the Czech Republic.”) The switch to smaller SM-3 missiles is sensible and realistic and in keeping with the administration’s goal of dealing with nonexistent problems in the decreasing order of likelihood; however crappy a state our world is in, a full-scale nuclear attack by Russia is not exactly high on the clear-and-present-danger list.

Everyone wins. Obama gets to streamline the military, and the Kremlin, which loves nothing more than a sustained heat of Western attention, gets to announce that the White House caved in to its pressure.

Everyone wins. Obama gets to streamline the military, and the Kremlin, which loves nothing more than a sustained heat of Western attention, regardless of the nature of that attention, gets to announce that the White House caved in to its pressure. Depriving Moscow of a thing to whine about is, perversely enough, a victory in itself. (I’ve written about this odd aspect of the U.S.-Russian relations in the past.) Moscow’s other current grievances—the perceived U.S. interference in Ukraine and Georgia, for instance—are less tangible and don’t cohere into any specific demands. Thus, the only question is what will be Medvedev’s (just kidding—Putin’s) tit for Obama’s tat. One obvious guess is a more docile position on Iran: The Kremlin continues waxing upset about any new sanctions, but it will be interesting to check for a change of tone when Iran talks to the world’s six nuclear powers on October 1. Whatever Russia’s side of the bargain is, there’s little doubt that it was predetermined well before Thursday’s announcement—most likely during Obama’s August visit to Moscow.

Still, this leaves Obama open to mild political fallout at home. The zero-sum conservatives Stateside, who think that if Russia is pleased it automatically means America has failed, will pick up on the Kremlin’s inevitable gloating for the domestic audience and take it at face value (or pretend to). The idea that Russia has somehow strong-armed the U.S. into this tweak is laughable. In scrapping the Polish and Czech installations, the White House has essentially put down an old dog that drove the neighbor nuts and got a litter of kittens instead; whether the neighbor considers it his personal victory is rather beside the point.

As for the fact that the administration managed to announce the move on the 70th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Poland: a bit awkward, but surely meaningless, though I imagine it will rattle some nerves in Warsaw.

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York magazine and has covered Russia for The New Republic. His debut novel, Ground Up, will be published later this month.