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Russia & the US: The Beginning of a Grand Bargain?

Russia and America: The Beginning of a Grand Bargain?

by Reuben Steff

US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart in July, 2009

The Obama administration has shelved plans to deploy a ground-based missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland. This shift in policy may be the first step in a tectonic shift upon the geopolitical chessboard.

In one swoop Obama has broken down one of the most significant barriers to Russian-American co-operation on a host of issues. Whereas their strategies collided merely days ago, suddenly there is chance to re-align and re-forge a strategic partnership.

The decision followed a 60-day review of plans by the Bush administration to place ground-based missile defence interceptors in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic. The stated rationale for this system was to counter the threat of an Iranian ballistic missile attack against Europe or America.

The Obama administration has now apparently downgraded its threat assessment of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. This assessment had been exaggerated for some time but acted as the strategic rationale for what was essentially a political decision to deploy the systems in Central Europe.

Russia has seen the deployment in the context of the Bush (and Clinton) administration’s campaign to expand NATO Eastward and solidify America’s influence in the former Soviet Union. As a consequence, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began the geopolitical resurgence of Russia in 2007, seeking to push back against what he saw as Western expansionism. He did this by using energy resources as a tool of political coercion and by smashing Georgia during a brief war in 2008. In more recent times he has pulled Iran into his embrace while pushing Russian influence back into Europe.

Although the system in its initial form posed no threat to Russia it was the long term implications that it feared. This was stoked by the unique way America has gone about deploying the system, adhering to a new ‘evolutionary acquisition model’ that was backed by ‘spiral funding’.

This meant that the global system, of which the Central European component was only a part, had no fixed end-point and could be subject to endless change and revision. The worst-case fear of the Russians was that the European component could eventually negate its nuclear deterrent and its second strike capability in a hypothetical nuclear war with America.

This was heightened by talk within American circles that America was approaching a point of nuclear primacy, whereby it would soon be able to destroy all of Russia (and China’s) ballistic missiles in a first strike.

The decision to pull the plug is a result of America’s need for Russian help with Afghanistan and Iran. Upon entering office these represented two of Obama’s key foreign policy goals – both of which were being thwarted by Russian hostility toward the missile-defence system and America’s strategic plans for Poland.

The decision to remove the system appears to be a response to a concession Moscow gave Washington when it allowed American troops and weapons to over fly Russian territory into Afghanistan.

Depending upon your viewpoint Obama’s decision is either the height of sanity and pragmatism; or an example of his weakness. Both viewpoints have their merits:

For a start it never made any strategic sense to deploy missile defences in Poland as it was sure to poison Russian-American relations, while there are massive questions over the technical reliability of the system. Consequently, the decision always appeared to be far more political than strategic. It was based upon consolidating America’s influence in former Soviet states by ‘coupling’ America to their security.

The other point of view is lodged in a particular reading of history and the attempt to appease Hitler prior to WWII. The lesson of this historical experience is as simplistic as it is persuasive: you do not appease hostile powers for it only emboldens them.

Consequently, abandoning missile defence may only stoke Russia’s appetite to see its former Soviet satellites return to its sphere of influence and the initial response from Europe to Obama’s decision seems to reflect this fear.

The crucial question now becomes: what else will Washington be willing to give up since the move to abandon missile defence in Central Europe does not necessarily equate to Russia giving in on the Iranian situation.

Russia’s real concern was how the system was interrelated with America’s overall strategic plan for Poland, which includes ramping up Poland’s defensive military capabilities. These efforts are a symbol of the future of U.S.-Polish military cooperation. After all, Washington has already armed Poland with 48 late-model F-16 fighter jets as well as other ordnance and subsystems.

All of these require maintenance and training to use, which puts American ‘boots on the ground’. At present these agreements remain in effect and act as a bulwark to Russia’s reconsolidation of its former soviet sphere of influence.

A New Deal?

There are two meetings in next few weeks that will help tell us whether Obama’s decision is the precursor to something bigger between Russia and America.

Next Thursday the UN Security Council will meet where Obama is hoping to pass a strong resolution on nuclear disarmament. A week later talks between members of the Security Council and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program is to take place where several Western nations are seeking to impose threats of oil and gas sanctions against Iran unless it is more forthcoming on its program

Russia's co-operation is crucial to making these meetings a success for Washington.

Irrespective of where one stands on Obama’s decision it is undeniable that it will have massive political effects. The extent of which will not be known for some time as Russia has made it clear that it desires a ‘Grand Bargain’ with America that goes further than just the removal of missile defence systems from Central Europe. It wants to reclaim a position in the front-rank order of Great Powers, one with an attendant ‘sphere of influence’ stretching across the former Soviet Union.


Reuben Steff is currently writing his PhD thesis on 'Deterrence Theory and Ballistic Missile Defence' at Otago University. He encourages comments, criticisms or thoughts. You can e-mail him at stere538[at] His blog is

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