The New York Times' Peter Baker breaks a story about the Obama administration's efforts to engage in linkage politics with Russia:
President Obama sent a secret letter to Russia's president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons, American officials said Monday.
The letter to President Dmitri A. Medvedev was hand-delivered in Moscow by top administration officials three weeks ago. It said the United States would not need to proceed with the interceptor system, which has been vehemently opposed by Russia since it was proposed by the Bush administration, if Iran halted any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
The officials who described the contents of the message requested anonymity because it has not been made public. While they said it did not offer a direct quid pro quo, the letter was intended to give Moscow an incentive to join the United States in a common front against Iran. Russia’s military, diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran give it some influence there, but it has often resisted Washington’s hard line against Iran.
“It’s almost saying to them, put up or shut up,” said a senior administration official. “It’s not that the Russians get to say, ‘We’ll try and therefore you have to suspend.’ It says the threat has to go away.”
Three things of interest here:
- This is the first in what I expect will be a series of linkage/grand bargain efforts by the Obama administration to various rivals and adversaries;
- Given the number of officials that talked to Baker, this seems like a planned leak by Obama's foreign policy team -- i.e., they want everyone to know about this proposal to the Russians. This is curious at first glance, because linkage strategies tend to have greater success when done covertly. In this case, I suspect the leak was designed to force the Russians to make a decision one way or another, while giving Obama political cover if they reject the linkage (note that they seem to be adopting the same straegy towards Iran).
- The letter was sent to Medvedev and not Putin. I'm guessing diplomatic protocol played a role in that decision, but one wonders if it was also part of an effort to split Medvedev away from Putin.
The Times story has already been updated with Medvedev's reaction:
On Tuesday, a press secretary for Dmitri A. Medvedev told the Interfax news agency that the letter did not contain any “specific proposals or mutually binding initiatives.”
Natalya Timakova said the letter was a reply to one sent by Mr. Medvedev shortly after Mr. Obama was elected.
“Medvedev appreciated the promptness of the reply and the positive spirit of the message,” Ms. Timakova said. “Obama’s letter contains various proposals and assessments of the current situation. But the message did not contain any specific proposals or mutually binding initiatives.”
She said Mr. Medvedev perceives the development of Russian-American relations as “exceptionally positive,” and hopes details can be fleshed out at a meeting on Friday in Geneva between Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev will meet for the first time on April 2 in London, officials said Monday.
My hunch is that, in the end, the Russians will spurn this deal [UPDATE: Drezner gets results from Dmitri Medvedev!]. Russia has sizeable commercial and strategic interests in Iran, and will want to maintain as much flexibility as possible in dealing with Tehran. If Moscow is smart, however, they will try to parlay this as a means for acting as the interlocutor between Iran and the West.
On the other hand, it seems though the Obama administration can't lose. If the Russians say no, then Obama's hand is strengthened in both Western and Eastern Europe, and Russia loses some leverage in trying to get missile defense out of their backyard.