WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's push to reset U.S.-Russian relations took a huge stride when he signaled the Kremlin he might forgo an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe if Moscow uses its clout with a troublesome Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
The back-channel diplomatic gambit was one of the few tools Obama had for unknotting the stalemated relationship — one that suffered under former Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.
Details of the Obama proposal, a letter responding to one from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, have not been disclosed, but the U.S. president has clearly enticed the Kremlin into a dialogue that could pay significant benefits to both sides.
While Medvedev said the two leaders were not negotiating a quid pro quo, improved relations rest on a deal that bundles the proposed missile shield and Iran, where Moscow holds considerable sway.
Obama concurred there had been no blatant trade offer, but he also said Tuesday that reducing Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons would lessen the need for a missile defense system. Given the three decades of U.S.-Iranian estrangement, Russia would serve as an obvious and powerful entree for putting the U.S. case to Tehran.
In an Oval Office meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama told reporters it was clear that the U.S. needed to "reset or reboot" its relationship with Russia.
The Kremlin has been equally clear that it is not prepared to ease tensions unless Washington moves away from the anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. But Medvedev said Tuesday he was heartened by a change in American tone.
"Our American partners are ready to discuss this problem, and that's already positive," Medvedev he said at a news conference in Madrid after talks with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. "Several months ago we were hearing different signals: 'The decision has been made, there is nothing to discuss, we will do what we have decided to do.'"
The Bush administration signed agreements to install the missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, maintaining it was needed to defend European allies against a potential strike by a nuclear-tipped Iranian missile. Washington insists the system was not directed at Russia.
Aside from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's perceived drive to develop nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them is the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the new U.S. president.
Russian help in deterring Iran is seen as invaluable, so important, in fact, that the White House now may be ready to shift gears on the missile system deployment and, perhaps, on broader U.S. policy toward the Kremlin.
Since shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization has pursued an agenda of poaching former Soviet satellite countries and even former Soviet republics into the alliance. The Kremlin has not forgotten that NATO was formed specifically at the start of the Cold War as a counter-threat to perceived Soviet expansionist ambitions.
Moscow has felt a genuine security threat as a heavily armed NATO moved to present-day Russian borders. What's more, an unconfident Kremlin still is smarting over its loss of superpower status and the collapse of its empire. For Moscow, NATO was clearly baiting the Russian bear.
Since a deal always benefits both sides, who will gain what if this one comes off?
—Washington would obviously gain a major ally in persuading Iran to step back from a nuclear program that the U.S. contends would otherwise end with Tehran — which has vowed the destruction of U.S. ally Israel — having a nuclear weapon.
—Moscow's Medvedev would gain bragging rights for having persuaded the Americans to reverse course on the missile shield, collecting a major diplomatic coup at a time when some believe he is trying to diminish the power of Putin, who hand-picked him for the presidency. Russia is heavily invested in national pride, and many argue its dustups with the U.S. have arisen directly from a latent sense of Kremlin inferiority and illegitimacy.
—Beyond that, Washington may hope to reverse a decision by Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet Central Asian republic, to end American use of an air base that is a major U.S. tool in supplying the American war effort in nearby Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan pulled the plug on the U.S. lease of the base within hours of Moscow having announced a huge fund of aid to the impoverished nation.
—That in turn could deepen U.S.-Russian cooperation in Afghanistan and more largely throughout the region. Moscow suffers a perpetual anxiety about the spread of militant Islam into its territory from its former Central Asian republics on the Afghan border.
—Russia's economy is failing badly in the global economic downturn, suffering especially under the recent drop in the price of oil, its major export. If Medvedev could win deeper inclusion in U.S.-led efforts to stop the financial slide worldwide, Russia might alleviate a calamitous economic failure while gaining stature as a more important player in the world economy.
The potential benefits to both sides are enormous, and the nations may be nearing or at the brink of a diplomatic "grand bargain" that has been much talked about since Obama's election last November. Both sides are moving carefully to avoid a miscue at this delicate stage, but the fact that both Obama and Medvedev are talking publicly about their contacts suggests a deal is now more — rather than less — likely.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Steven R. Hurst is a former AP Moscow bureau chief, has reported on foreign affairs for 30 years and now covers the White House.