Friday, November 7, 2008

Russia Throws Down Hard, Challenge To Obama is Clear, His Ability Is Not

Stratfor Geopolitical Diary: Medvedev's Carefully Timed Address
November 6, 2008

On Wednesday, as the entire world took in the idea of having Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, one of the greatest challengers to American power, Russia, decided to make itself immediately clear on its views of the current U.S. administration, Obama’s election and the global U.S. agenda.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev gave his long-awaited first State of the State address (the equivalent of the U.S. president’s State of the Union address) on Nov. 5. The speech was much more than a nationalist appeal liberally sprinkled with Soviet-era rhetoric; it was a declaration of Russia’s return to the ranks of the world’s great powers. In effect, Medvedev not only tossed the gauntlet for Russia’s rivals in the West, but he also is not waiting around to see how they respond.

It must be understood that Medvedev — while he is certainly coming into his own under the sponsorship of his mentor, former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin –- did not write this speech himself. The author is the Kremlin’s gray cardinal, Vladislav Surkov, who has played the role of backroom dealer, enforcer, planner and puppet master for Putin for most of the past eight years. Surkov does not control Putin — far from it -– but in many ways is the brains behind much of what happens in the Kremlin these days.

It was Surkov who recommended that Medvedev’s speech, originally scheduled for Oct. 23, be postponed. Ostensibly, the delay was meant to allow Russia more time to deal with its deepening financial crisis, but in reality, Surkov wanted to know which presidential candidate the Americans were going to elect. The speech was already written. In fact, according to Stratfor sources, two speeches had been written — one for each possible outcome of the U.S. election. In waiting for a clear picture on whom Moscow would be dealing with in Washington, Russia underscored the central role the United States plays in the international system, and that Moscow views Washington as its main counterweight.

Unlike many previous State of the State addresses, Medvedev’s Nov. 5 speech contained few veiled threats or simple proclamations. Instead, it announced hard actions, including the following statements:

Russia will deploy Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between NATO and EU states Lithuania and Poland, in order to directly target the fledgling U.S. ballistic missile defense installations slated for Poland and the Czech Republic. (The Iskanders’ limited range will allow them to put only the Polish site at risk.)
Russia will return to a more Soviet-style system of term limits in order to more firmly entrench the power of the Putin team.
Moscow will not even consider negotiations with the lame-duck administration of President George W. Bush, preferring instead to wait for President-elect Barack Obama’s team, which Moscow thinks will be easier to manipulate (whether or not this proves true).
The United States is to blame not only for Russia’s war with Georgia, but also for the global financial crisis.
Russia will not make any concessions on its international position; the United States can take it or leave it.
All in all, these statements bear a degree of boldness that has long been present in Russian propaganda, though not necessarily backed up by any particular actions. Russia’s goal is simple: Use the three-month U.S. presidential transition period to impose a reality on the regions Moscow considers of core interest, presenting soon-to-be President Obama with a fait accompli. Most of Russia’s efforts will focus on Ukraine, but attention also will be spread throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as the Baltics, Belarus, Poland and the Czech Republic.

These states are already nervous about Obama’s ability to stand up to Russia’s new swagger, especially since he has never outlined a firm stance against Moscow and will be embroiled in other critical affairs, like Iraq and Iran. Now, Medvedev has told these states outright that Russia is about to act while the Americans can’t. He is playing on the states’ fears to push them into making a choice: Continue to depend on the United States (whether its support comes through or not), work with Moscow, or get crushed in the process.

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