The morning after Barack Obama’s election, the congratulatory message from Moscow was in the chilliest tradition of the Cold War.
"I hope for constructive dialogue with you," said Russia’s president, "based on trust and considering each other’s interests."
Dmitry Medvedev went on that day, in his first State of the Union, to charge America with fomenting the Russia-Georgia war and said he has been "forced" to put Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad to counter the U.S. missile shield President Bush pledged to Poland.
Medvedev had painted Obama into a corner. No new American president can be seen as backing down from a Russian challenge.
Three days later, Polish President Lech Kaczynski tried to box Barack in. His office declared that, during a phone conversation with Kaczynski, Obama had promised to deploy the anti-missile missiles.
Obama foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough denied it.
One week later, however, Medvedev wisely walked the cat back.
During the G-20 summit in Washington, he told the Council on Foreign Relations the issue of Russian missiles in Kaliningrad "is not closed. I am personally ready to discuss it, and I hope that the new president and the new administration will have the will to discuss it."
President-elect Obama should not let this opportunity slip by, for a second signal came last week that Russia does not want the Cold War II that the departing neocons wish to leave on his plate.
Moscow offered Spain and Germany use of Russian territory to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan. As our supply line from the Pakistani port of Karachi through the Khyber Pass to Kabul grows perilous, this has to be seen as a gesture of friendship by a Russia that shares, as a fellow victim of Islamic terror, the U.S. detestation of al-Qaida.
Opportunity also presents itself with the official report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on the August war. According to The New York Times, the OSCE found, consistent with Moscow’s claims, that Georgia "attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm."
Russia’s response — running the Georgian Army out of South Ossetia, occupying Abkhazia and recognizing both as independent nations — may seem disproportionate and excessive. But, contrary to John ("We are all Georgians now!") McCain, Moscow has a compelling case that Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili started the fire.
Medvedev is now on a four-nation Latin tour with stops in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. But this seems more like diplomatic tit-for-tat for high-profile U.S. visits to Tbilisi and other ex-Soviet republics than laying the groundwork for some anti-American alliance.
For, just as for Washington the relationship with Moscow is far more crucial than any tie to Tbilisi, so Moscow’s tie to Washington is surely far more crucial to Russia than any tie to Caracas or Havana.
With these opening moves, how might Obama test the water for a better relationship with the Russia of Medvedev and Vladimir Putin?
First, Obama should restate his campaign position that no anti-missile system will be deployed in Poland until fully tested.
Second, he should declare that, as this system is designed to defend against an Iranian ICBM with a nuclear warhead, it will not be deployed until Iran has tested an ICBM and an atomic device.
So long as the Iranian threat remains potential, not actual, there is no need to deploy a U.S. missile defense in Poland against it.
Third, he should invite Medvedev to Camp David to discuss what more they might do together to ensure that no such Iranian threat, to either nation, ever materializes. For if Iran does not test an ICBM or atomic device, what is the need for a missile defense in East Europe?
Fourth, invoking the principle of self-determination, Obama might propose a plebiscite in Georgia and Abkhazia to determine if these people wish to return to Tbilisi’s rule.
The second bone of contention between us is prospective NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine.
As NATO is a military alliance, at the heart of which is Article V, which obligates every ally to come to the defense of a member who is attacked, to bring Georgia in would be madness.
To cede to Saakashvili power to bring us into confrontation with Russia would be to rival British stupidity in giving Polish colonels power to drag the empire into war with Germany over Danzig, which is exactly what the Polish colonels proceeded to do in 1939.
Before the NATO summit next week, Obama should signal to NATO, and the Bush administration, that nothing irreversible should be done to put Ukraine or Georgia on a path to membership.
First, because the president-elect will decide himself about new war guarantees in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus. Second, because these are matters to be taken up at a Medvedev-Obama summit, not foreclosed for him by neocons now trooping home to their think tanks.