Obama’s “Mission Impossible” to Moscow

By Nicholas Dima l Julyl 21, 2009

Presidents Obama and Medvedev sign Joint Understanding in Moscow to replace START Treaty on July 6, 2009.
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.


As a presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama envisioned a new foreign policy of dialogue with the leaders of countries with which Washington had adversarial relations. As president, however, he committed America not only to a policy of “engagement,” but also to one of “accommodation” with the hostile governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, along with a “restart” of U.S.-Russian relations, to paraphrase Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

President Obama’s mission to Moscow likely hoped to achieve a rapprochement following last year’s cooling off period with the U.S. and the EU, caused primarily by Russia’s military aggression against the Republic of Georgia. From Moscow’s point of view, the situation was more complex. Sensing the probable NATO expansion into its Soviet-era sphere of influence or its “near abroad,” Moscow was determined to regain hegemony over its former republics. Thus, it strengthened its position in the Caucasus and it stiffened its attitude toward Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Furthermore, Moscow made it clear that it strongly opposed the American plan of placing a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. And to make sure that its new geopolitical policy would succeed, Moscow also strengthened its control of oil and gas supplies to Western Europe. By the time President Obama arrived in Moscow, Russia’s leadership knew very well what it wanted and what it could compromise.

At the outset it can be said that President Obama’s goals were set too high, while Moscow’s were more down to earth. According to the interview given to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta on July 6th, Mr. Obama stated:

“My government is completing a comprehensive review of all of our missile defense programs, including those in Europe. Given the threats around the world, especially those growing from North Korea and Iran, our goal is to enhance missile defense for the United States and our allies in Europe and elsewhere…When discussing our plans for Europe, we first and foremost are seeking to build a missile defense system that protects the United States and Europe from an Iranian ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead. We are not building and will not build a system that is aimed to respond to an attack from Russia. Such thinking is simply a legacy of the Cold War. We have not yet decided how we will configure missile defense in Europe. But my sincere hope is that Russia will be a partner in that project.”

Russia, however, does not see eye to eye with Washington. From Moscow’s point of view, a new missile defense system placed in Eastern Europe represents a threat to Russia’s interests. Actually, as reported by Agence France Presse (AFP) and published by Ziua on July 10th, at the recent G8 summit, President Medvedev declared without equivocation that if the U.S. installs the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow will install the mobile Iskander-M ballistic missile system in the Kaliningrad enclave, now a Russian oblast and a geographic quirk from the World War II-era Potsdam Conference. Situated on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad lacks a connecting land route to Russia but offers Moscow a warm water port and a strategic location in North-Eastern Europe sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. As opposed to Washington, Moscow does not perceive the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea as priorities or imminent threats to its interests. With few exceptions, from the beginning, Washington’s and Moscow’s positions were impossible to reconcile. As a matter of fact, the Russian press and the well-known political analysts in Moscow close to the Kremlin did not express any enthusiasm toward President Obama’s visit or his goals.

According to the news agency Ria Novosti, the Russian political analysts were more skeptical than their American counterparts that Russian-U.S. ties could be “reset” or restarted during President Obama’s visit. Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council for Russia’s Foreign and Defense Policy, and a reputed analyst, said “the underlying nature of the concept of a ‘reset’ was extremely fragile. Russia does not see real changes in U.S. policies and believes they are more of a cosmetic nature.” More specifically, he stressed that the Americans were “unwilling to make substantial changes in their policies, including over NATO expansion and the signing of a Russian proposed pan-European security treaty.”

Viewed as substantial summit achievements by the White House, Obama and Medvedev signed a Joint Understanding on the mutual reduction of their nuclear arsenals. The agreement specifies: “each Party will reduce and limit its strategic offensive arms so that seven years after entry into force of the treaty and thereafter, the limits will be in the range of 500-1100 for strategic delivery vehicles, and in the range of 1500-1675 for their associated warheads.” This compares to 1600 strategic launch vehicles and 2200 warheads under the expiring START and Moscow treaties.

Moscow also agreed to allow the U.S. to supply its troops in Afghanistan by crossing Russian air space. But this agreement permits the Kremlin a modicum of control over the American supply route and indirectly it confirms Russia’s domination over the former Soviet Central Asia. The United States and NATO can continue to use the U.S.-built air base at Manas, in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan, but only with an increase in rent from $17 million to $60 million a year. But to please Moscow, as reported by Ziua on July 8th, Kirghizstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev also agreed to grant Russia a new military base at Osh in the southern part of the country.

Although the Obama White House insists there is no linkage between this arms reduction of strategic offensive weapons and the development of a strategic defensive weapons system in Poland and the Czech Republic, President Medvedev sees it differently. In fact, the Joint Understanding specifies in point-5: “A provision on the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms.” Both Barack Obama and Dimitry Medvedev signed the new arms treaty.

As for the delicate questions of expanding NATO into Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow gave the president a clear “Nyet.” And for cooperation against North Korea and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Moscow’s answer was vague, which in reality is also a diplomatic NO. Furthermore, Medvedev has already spoken out against expanding sanctions against Iran, describing them as “counterproductive.” Moscow has its own agenda. According to Newsweek of July 20, the Russians have completed the Iranian Bushehr nuclear reactor and are now about ready to supply Iran with “a state of the art missile defense system.” The system costs $700 billion and “would make a U.S. or Israeli air strike … considerably more difficult.”

During his meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the power behind the throne, Mr. Obama discussed a series of delicate European and international issues. According to Ziua of July 8th, during the Obama-Putin meeting the Russian Prime Minister underlined that Ukraine and Georgia “are very important to Russia.” This prompted Mr. Obama to promise that he will “keep this in mind.” Pravda on July 8th, reported President Obama had concluded the two-day summit with conciliatory words for Moscow’s leaders. He praised Russia’s contribution to culture and art and only mildly challenged the Kremlin to change its behavior.

Indeed, during his remarks at the graduation ceremonies for the New Economic School in Moscow, President Obama said:

“State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure and to their own foreign policies… That’s why we must apply this principle to all nations — and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country… And let me be clear: NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.”

The conclusion is also clear; for now, the two above mentioned countries – Georgia and Ukraine – are being drawn inexorably into Russia’s sphere of influence.

The signal sent by Washington to the world after the recent Moscow summit is not one of strength. Only months ago Russia invaded Georgia, threatened Ukraine, interfered in Moldova’s elections, tightened its control over oil and gas supplies to Europe and flexed its muscles internationally. The United States and the European Union reacted with verbal indignation, but not much else. In the meantime, Russia continued to pursue, unabated, its new geopolitical course. President Obama’s mission to Moscow legitimized Russia’s gains, while the Kremlin gave up nothing of substance.

In addition, Obama’s visit to Moscow appeared to neglect the interests of some of America’s staunchest allies such as Turkey, Germany, Poland and Romania. And how are America’s enemies, such as Iran and North Korea, going to behave knowing that Washington needs Moscow’s approval to act against them?

Take Romania, for example, a country humbly trying to please the United States and whose soldiers fight and die alongside the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the Moscow summit, Mircea Geoana, the speaker of the Romanian parliament, a former ambassador to Washington and a strong pro-American politician, stated in the parliament, “The new American administration seems to be interested beyond Romania…a fact that should make Romania rethink and change its policy toward the East [read Russia]…” The statement was published by Ziua on July 8th. And in neighboring and troubled Moldova, the weekly publication of the Moldavian Writers Union, Literatura si Arta, had an even gloomier remark. According to its editorial Nr. 27 of July 9th, Moldova’s Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, promised Russia that in exchange for its support, if reelected, he will: transform Moldova into a federal republic; adopt Russian as an official language; and, reorient its policy toward Moscow. The publication claims that during this summit, President Obama asked Russia to withdraw its troops from the separatist Moldavian Trans-Dnestr republic. Reportedly, Moscow consented as long as America accepted the transformation of Moldova into a pro-Russian federation. Allegedly, Mr. Obama agreed.

Romania may not be important to America and Moldova may be negligible, but what about Germany, Poland, Turkey, Georgia or Ukraine? For two decades now, Ankara has made sustained efforts to befriend its Muslim kin in the Caspian basin and to secure oil and gas pipelines through its territory for Western use. Moscow, however, outmaneuvered the West and reestablished its domination over many of those huge energy sources. Germany and other European countries also wanted to reduce their dependence on Russian energy, but their efforts failed. As for Poland, a country that has bitter memories of its colossal Russian neighbor, how is it going to react if the U. S. hesitates to install the defensive anti-missile bases on its territory after having publicly agreed to do so?

During President Obama’s mission to Moscow, it has become clear what the Kremlin didn’t give up. But the question remains, “What did the White House give up?”

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.