When President Obama came to Moscow in July, he hinted that Russia’s best chance to stop the U.S. from building a missile shield in the region was to help stifle Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Russia got what it wanted Thursday: The United States dropped plans for missile shield facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. But if Moscow’s initial reaction is any measure, Washington should not expect much in return.
Russian officials have been anticipating the U.S. decision, and regard it as proof that the United States has finally come to its senses. The Americans, one Russian official said, shouldn’t demand rewards for finally fixing a mistake.
In recent weeks, Moscow has come under increasing pressure from the U.S. and Israel to take a harder line against Iran’s nuclear program. But Russia doesn’t feel particularly threatened by a nuclear Iran, analysts say. Instead, the Kremlin tends to treat Iran as an economic opportunity. And it embraces the Islamic Republic as a powerful nation hostile to the United States.
The Kremlin had badly wanted the Obama administration to drop plans to deploy the missile interceptors and radar equipment in countries that once were part of the Soviet sphere of influence. But that doesn’t mean Russian officials were willing to characterize the shift in policy as a concession.
“Those who are talking about a concession to Russia are primarily those who are looking for a bargaining chip in seeking extra dividends of some kind from us,” said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, in remarks carried on the Interfax news agency. “In actual fact, the Americans have simply put their own mistake right. And we are not duty-bound to pay for someone to put their own mistakes right.”
From the start, Moscow was enraged by the George W. Bush administration’s proposal to build the missile installations. Russian officials rejected U.S. explanations that the facilities would be a deterrent to Iranian weapons, instead viewing them as a menacing show of force and an attempt to curb Russian military might.
Some of the early strains of goodwill toward Obama stirred in Russia when he, as a presidential candidate, expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the proposed Eastern European installations.
Russia’s Iran policy has never been straightforward. In recent weeks, Russia and Israel have held high-level meetings on Iran. At the same time, Interfax quoted an anonymous Russian official as raising doubts about whether Iran had properly answered concerns about its nuclear program.
Russia has been firmly against imposing more sanctions on Iran, and that determination showed little sign of wavering Thursday.
“There is a real chance to start negotiations that should result in agreements . . . to restore confidence in the purely peaceful nature of this program,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “It would be a serious mistake to kill off this chance with demands for immediate sanctions.”
Some analysts say that, despite its official expressions of concern over whether Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, Moscow isn’t particularly worried about whether Tehran is pursuing atomic weapons.
“Neither Iranian nor North Korean nuclear weapons were ever a big issue here, because they’re not seen as a direct threat against Russia,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.
In a sense, the tensions between the West and Iran have been beneficial for Moscow, lending it a badly desired sense of diplomatic clout. For years, Russia has remained essentially noncommittal as it was courted by both sides.
Under Vladimir Putin, first as president and now as prime minister, Russia has returned to a semblance of the Cold War practice of cultivating ties with anti-American countries. Among them are Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Iran fits neatly into that pattern, and Russia has also benefited from lucrative business deals, including the construction of a nuclear power plant in Iran.
With the debate over a nuclear Iran coming to a head, analysts predict that hard-liners and more conciliatory factions of Russia’s political elite will each seize upon the shift in missile shield policy to try to bolster their cause.
“There is an intense fight about which direction the country should take,” said Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. “Whether Russia is going to integrate into the so-called civilized world or put together a coalition of global misfits and radicals.”