The president just announced America will no longer be building a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. No matter how President Obama tried to frame it, stressing the decision was based on changes to the Iranian threat and improved American technological capabilities, the move was a concession to Russia. And Washington better get something in return.
What the United States wants, of course, is Moscow's support in dealing with Iran. And Mr. Obama specifically mentioned "our shared efforts to end Iran's illicit nuclear program" in his public remarks. Whether Washington will ultimately get Russia's help, however, is far from certain: Moscow has a pragmatic but not warm relationship with Tehran, it fears the destabilizing effects of an Iranian nuclear weapon but does not see itself as a likely target, and it benefits from Iran's continuing isolation, especially from international energy markets.
More to the point, just as neither the Obama nor the Bush administrations accepted that U.S. missile-defense plans were aimed at Russia, Russia never accepted that missile defense was linked to Iran. From this perspective, the administration's unwillingness to admit that it is giving something away makes it easier for Moscow to pretend that it is not getting anything. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said as much last week, when he argued that if the United States were to drop the plans, it would be correcting a mistake and not making a concession. Taking that position after the Obama announcement would be a mistake for Russia, but it would be far from the first.
Moreover, if Russia does not deliver meaningful support on Iran after President Obama took this fairly drastic and apparently unilateral step--which among other things could damage American relations with two NATO allies and undercut Polish and Czech friends of the United States who supported the previous administration's efforts--it is difficult to see how the "reset" can really succeed. How could the administration hope to succeed after that in working with Congress to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization and get rid of Jackson-Vanik? What would happen when the president brings a new arms-control treaty to the Senate? It is difficult to see a constructive path forward from that point.
If there is no behind-the-scenes understanding with Russia's leaders, Mr. Obama's decision to scrap the Polish and Czech missile defense sites is both bold and quite risky. Much now hinges on Russia's interpretation of what happened and why, its appreciation of U.S. politics and decision-making, and its true interest in cooperating with the United States. In other words, now is the time for Russia's top officials to decide where they really stand.
Paul J. Saunders, Executive Director of The Nixon Center, is the associate publisher of The National Interest. Read the National Interest on Eurasian affairs here.