Thursday, September 23, 2010

What's in it for Russia? (UPDATED TWICE)

Russian defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov met with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon last week. Gates devoted more than four hours to his Russian counterpart; suffice it to say that it's unusual for the SECDEF to spend half a working day on a senior leader engagement.

That said, the time seems to have been well spent. Just today, the Russian government announced that President Dmitriy Medvyedev has cancelled a proposed sale of S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Iran, a development that will come as a pleasant surprise to American and Israeli military leaders. The S-300 is "a system that scares every Western air force," according to defense analyst Daniel Goure (via Spencer Ackerman), and Medvyedev's decision flies in the face of recent Russian insistence that the S-300 deal would go ahead.

So why the sudden change of heart? It's difficult to say. Gates' meeting with Serdyukov also apparently emphasized American gratitude for Russian assistance with the Northern Distribution Network, a logistics line that has become increasingly important to the coalition effort in Afghanistan in light of instability and insecurity in Pakistan. Spencer quotes Ariel Cohen and suggests that Russian complicity with U.S. wishes on the S-300 deal may be part of some sort of "quid pro quo" for the ministerial visit. But look at the Serdyukov-Gates chat alongside the NDN developments and recent U.S. interest in Russian helicopters. Just so there's no misunderstanding here, the Russians know exactly what's going on; here's what Serdykov had to say after his meetings with Gates: "“We discussed that our cooperation in the military and technical sphere isn’t developing. We, of course, have an interest in some American technology and, I think, they have an interest in some of ours.” Hint hint.

So, seriously: what's in it for Russia? They've helped with the NDN, they've agreed not to sell S-300s to the Iranians, and they're interested in exchanges of defense technology (to include facilitating U.S. efforts to supply warfighting partners with difficult-to-find Russian airframes). It can't be as simple as us refusing to satisfy Georgian pipe dreams about self-defense, right? Or pushing the "overcharge" button? So really: what is it?

UPDATE: This morning's Playbook has a statement on the S-300 issue from National Security Staff spokesman Mike Hammer:
"The White House strongly welcomes the Executive Order signed by Russian President Medvedev which bans the transfer of advanced weaponry to Iran, including the S-300. We believe President Medvedev has demonstrated leadership on holding Iran accountable to its international obligations from start to finish. We welcome this faithful and robust implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1929, and we remain committed alongside our Russian and other P5+1 partners to finding a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue."
UPDATE 2: Josh Rogin has an excellent rundown on this issue, though I think the space he gives to David Kramer's bleating is probably excessive. But to the point of this post, Rogin speculates that Russia's decision is an effort to win support for WTO accession:

As for why the Russians finally decided to scuttle the arms deal after years of lobbying by Washington, the official speculated that Moscow now has something it needs -- and that it finally has faith that the U.S. is willing to help. Russia is jockeying for as much U.S. support as possible for their upcoming bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and Moscow is planning to finalize its bid this year.

"Momentum on WTO accession is what they see as they next big negotiations with us. We're right in the middle of that. That's asymmetric because that's more in their interest than ours. I think we have to deliver on that," the official said.

But the Obama administration isn't asking Russia for favors or giving them out in return, the official explained. The idea is to make the U.S.-Russia relationship more valuable to the Russians than their relationship with Iran, and both countries should act in their own interests.

"The objective is not actually to develop a good relationship with Russia. The goal here is to advance our national security and economic interests and to promote universal values," the official said.

The last bit is noteworthy in light of Kramer's criticism, perhaps. Anyway, it's worth reading the whole piece.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe the Russians are hoping by not selling S-300s to Iran that the United States would not put the planned missile defense bases in Eastern Europe.