Medvedev's statement regarding the deployment of Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad Region in response to the US intention to station Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic was hardly among the Kremlin's most fortunate moves. Considering that Obama himself was not a great supporter of that project--with its dubious technological efficiency and exorbitant cost--it would probably have been more expedient to let the new US president freeze or even bury this idea of the Bush Administration.
The timing for making such a statement, with Obama only just emerging victorious from a grueling race, also was rather less than perfect. After Obama's election was secured, a phone call to congratulate the new White House resident and wish him success in his difficult mission might have been more fitting. Memorably, Putin's phone call to Bush on 11 September 2001 was instrumental in establishing a personal friendship between the two presidents that exerted some restraint on the zeal of the Cold War Warriors.
Ironically, it was none other than Poland's President Lech Kaczynski who came to Medvedev's rescue by over-reaching, ascribing to Obama enthusiastic support for the missile shield on Polish territory -- support that Obama had never expressed. Obama's response was instantaneous; he flatly refuted Kaczynski's statement through Denis McDonough, his senior aide for international affairs.
This is far from the first gaffe Kaczynski has been known to make. His appeal at an August rally in Tbilisi for setting up an anti-Russia coalition had to be withdrawn as well, that time by Poland's own foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who announced that President Kaczynski's speech had been an "extemporization." "That was the President's own proposal and its content was not known to the Foreign Ministry," Sikorski said then.
It would be better if the Kremlin did not just feel smug over the Polish president's propensity to exaggerate, but instead took notice of Obama's refutation and treated it as a first and singularly important step toward Russia. Now the ball is in Moscow's court, and a suitable response for it to make is only too obvious.
Obama has repeatedly said that, if elected to the White House, he would start phasing out US troops from Iraq while focusing on fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Military matters are improving anyway in Iraq, but not in Afghanistan. At this point, even token help from Russia to NATO would be gratefully received in the West. It would be better still if that help were more substantial, similar to what Russia did for America in 2001-2002. That assistance, incidentally, did not cost it a single soldier's life.
Back then, everyone in America was singing praises to Russia, calling it a strategic partner and even an ally. Naturally, one could lament the fact that Bush repaid Russia by scrapping the ABM treaty, continuing NATO eastward expansion, promoting the project for deploying BMD elements in Eastern Europe, and so on. On the other hand, helping the West would not be a mere charitable act on Russia's part. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are no less a threat to Russia than they are to the US and Europe, and combating them is a common cause that is a must to all.
As soon as cooperation in this area becomes a fact, the powerful anti-Russia lobby in the United States would find itself in isolation. By way of the next step, the Russian leadership could raise the issue of freezing NATO expansion and creating a new security system in Europe that would involve Russia. From there it is not so far to go to forging a new partnership and even alliance with the United States and Europe.
Some on both sides may dismiss these ideas as naÃ¯ve and utopian, but the skeptics would do well to consider the alternatives. I am confident that they would be hard put to it to come up with something more attractive.