After a considerably long break from condemning the U.S. missile defense system, Moscow decided to recently remind Washington of its dissatisfaction with the program.

 On November 17, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, made a clear link between deploying the missile defense project on the European continent and Russia quitting the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (new START), in addition to accusing NATO of a steady encroachment toward Russia’s borders. One week later, in a televised speech in his Gorki residence outside Moscow, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev harshly warned Washington of continuing its missile project without giving Russia the assurances it desires, that is, clear legal obligations setting out boundaries. As the USA and other NATO partners have not demonstrated “serious readiness to move,” Russia intends to take military countermeasures, Medvedev said. One of the “appropriate measures” in response to the U.S. missile plans was a fast activation of the Voronezh-DM early-warning radar in Kaliningrad, an enclave of Russia on the border with Poland. The radar has a range of approx. 6,000 km and the ability to monitor and detect not only strategic, but also tactical missiles. In addition, Moscow is also threatening to deploy its middle-range strike systems, such as Iskander mobile theatre ballistic missiles, in the Kaliningrad region.  

These recent bitter statements by Russian officials have been interpreted to be focused not on changing NATO policy, but on influencing the elections to the Russian State Duma on December 4, 2011. As the Kremlin often uses belligerent rhetoric in its foreign policy shortly before elections, it was not surprising that Medvedev would deliver such a speech to help his party, United Russia. On the other hand, some observers link the more aggressive Kremlin tone with the presidential election in the US in 2012. This line of argument proposes that because Obama has tried to present the reset with Russia as one of the main achievements during his presidency, over the next few months he might be more inclined to make concessions towards Moscow in order to maintain good relations between the US and Russia.

The timing of Medvedev’s speech might indeed be connected with both election times. However, a deeper look at the map and some basic assumptions of classic geopolitics help illustrate that recent Russian behavior should not be reduced to temporary domestic factors, nor an attempt to blackmail the Obama administration. Rather, the recent statements of Russian state leaders reveal what many analysts in the last two years clearly overlooked: There was never, and in the face of the current distribution of power in the international system can never be, any realistic reset in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Too much of U.S. and Russian interests clash in the most important regions of the world – in Europe, the post-Soviet region, Asia, and the Middle East. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that Washington could ever abandon its national missile defense project, which is not only designed to help deter and defeat potential missiles from Iran, but also to maintain America’s nuclear superiority. Moreover, the missile defense plan, re-defined in 2009, will anchor the US militarily in Europe even deeper. Contrary to some predictions of a coming end of transatlantic relations, the “Europeanization” of the missile plan clearly shows that Washington, despite the shift of strategic attention toward Asia, still has a great interest in maintaining its position as a European security hegemon. As NATO has gradually lost its significance to the allies on both sides of the Atlantic, missile defense seems initially to be the only real possibility for the USA to remain a European power. Therefore, even if the new missile plan seemed to calm down Moscow, Russia must have in the meantime realized that the USA is serious about continuing its project – with or without Russian acceptance.

In conclusion, observers of international politics often fail to see through the rhetoric of national leaders, either ignoring or explaining away reality. The dynamic of inter-state relations depends on domestic politics, personality, threat perception and the individual beliefs of decision makers, the “chemistry” between leading statesmen, and a considerable range of current developments in world politics. All these aspects usually draw a large amount of attention and may sufficiently blur the picture of the long-term development of international relations. Even if it feels at times uncomfortable or old fashioned, keeping in mind geopolitics, the current distribution of power in the international system, and specific state interests that result from them, helps to maintain the “big picture” when interpreting international politics, without being prone to give in to waves of temporary warmer or colder phases in inter-state relations.  

Dr. Daria W. Dylla teaches International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne.