Moscow's overriding concern is the nuclear balance between Russia and America, which it perceives as the two nuclear super-powers. This is followed by the US interceptor missiles and radar stations to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic. The nuclear cloud hanging over Tehran comes much lower down on Moscow's scale of priorities. The Russian government stands by its claim that Iran's pursuit of an A-bomb and its development of long-range ballistic missiles as vehicles of delivery remain to be proven.
President Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin would be open to helping facilitate dialogue between the US and the Islamic republic, provided the Obama administration abandons President George W. Bush's plan to install missiles near Russia's borders.
Awareness of the value of combining the two issues and of Russian-Iranian interplay is not confined to the Kremlin. Barack Obama's leading advisers, for whom the Afghan conflict is a prime concern, have concluded that both Russian and Iranian cooperation are critical for finding a way out of that imbroglio. Unlike Iraq, a military surge is necessary but not the answer.
Russian leaders are therefore putting a high price tag on their assets for the incoming US administration and have stacked five cards as leverage for their first summit with President Obama.
Impatient to get going, they hope the Americans hurry up and put the staff work in place for a Russian-US summit to take place as early as next summer.
Russia offers “adequate” reward for “Zero Option” in Europe
Behind this impatience lurks unease about the top team the president elect is putting together.
While many influential posts have gone to Clinton people from the 1990s, the Russians, whose memories tend to cling to long-past suspicions of shadowy conspiracies, are casting a beady eye on Robert Gates, who stays on at the Pentagon.
The Russians have not forgotten his suspected role as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency in vice president Aleksandr Rutsoy's attempted coup in September 1993. Were it not for Boris Yeltzin's bold steps in dissolving the legislature and leading the Russian army into battle against the rebels in the streets of Moscow, post-Soviet Russian history would have been quite different today.
Medvedev and Putin are therefore angling for direct talks straight from the shoulder with Obama. They will not be satisfied with messages carried back and forth by secretaries, however august.
The five aces – or four and a joker – they plan to lay down on the table, disclosed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources, may be played separately or in combination, according to how their give-and-take with Washington unfolds:
Ace No. 1: Russia will offer to refrain from renovating its nuclear arsenal provided the new US president agrees to scrap America's projected missile shield in East Europe.
For this compromise, Russia “will undoubtedly respond adequately,” said Col. Gen, Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, last week. His remark followed Medvedev's Zero Option proposal for the reciprocal removal of all missile facilities from continental Europe and the comment by Russia's NATO ambassador Dmitry Rogozin, who dismissed as “fairy tales” Washington's argument about the need for a missile shield on the Baltic coast “thousands of kilometers from Tehran.”
Planting a competitive stake in Lebanon
Russian sources expect the incoming US president to seize on this compromise to buy time for his top priority, salvaging the shipwrecked American economy. They believe a tit-for-tat about-face on Russia's nuclear arsenal and America's missile shield would be productive to both and ease strained relations.
Ace No. 2: Russian rulers are very keen on playing honest broker between the US and Iran.
To promote their bid, they harp on assurances that Iran would respond positively to “the inspiring statements” from Obama about dialogue on Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Ace No. 3: DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources stress the significance of Moscow's heavy investment in expanding its sphere of political and military influence in the Middle East.
This month, Russia placed its bid against America for a stake in Lebanon. Both are arming Lebanese forces with their first intake of heavy weapons. But, unlike Washington, Moscow has attached no strings to its gift of ten MiG-29 fighter jets and other heavy hardware. The Lebanese army is free to transfer Russian weaponry to any quarter it chooses (including Hizballah).
The two powers' military instructors and advisers, especially the air force trainers, will soon be jostling each other in Beirut. Both will inevitably step up the flow of heavy weapons to beat down the competition. An impressive Russian military delegation is due in Beirut hot on the heels of an American mission.
From Lebanon to Nicaragua
The Russians are accordingly spreading their military wings in a wide swathe from Syria's Mediterranean ports of Tartous and Latakiya south to Beirut and Sidon – 250 kilometers away. They have arrived at Israel's back door and are within shouting distance of Hizballah strongholds. The Russians moving into South Lebanon will not miss the chance of direct dealings with Iran's proxy group and another outlet for selling arms, initially via the Lebanese army.
(See more about this in HOT POINTS below).
Ace No. 4: The Russian Navy and Air Force have moved in on another continent, Latin America. Although the Pentagon in Washington makes light of their moves, when added up, they present an ominous picture. After holding joint maneuvers with Venezuela and signing contracts to build nuclear reactors for Hugo Chavez, Russian warships visited Cuba for the first time since the Cold War.
They turned their historic passage through Panama Canal into a major media event and, this week, unveiled a new sensation: a plan to build a Nicaraguan canal for linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in competition with the Panama Canal.
Russian participation in this project was discussed Thursday, Dec. 25, during President Daniel Ortega's official visit to Moscow.
Quid pro quo or confrontation?
Ace No. 5 – the Joker: Moscow has blown the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)'s observation mission out of Georgia. The organization's Finnish president, Antti Turnen, announced Wednesday, Dec. 22, that the observers would leave by Jan 1 in the face of Russian opposition to extending their mission by another three months.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that the organization decided to withdraw rather than bow to Moscow's demand to split the observer team between Georgia and South Ossetia in recognition of the new autonomous status conferred by Moscow on the breakaway province.
In fact, the Russians used this gambit to get the European observers out of the way before broaching a second round of their war against Georgia. (Read the lead article of DEBKA-Net-Weekly 376: Putin is Not Done with Saakashvili)
According to our Moscow sources, the Medvedev-Putin duo is certain they have a winning deck of cards to play against the incoming US president after he takes office next month, unless of course Obama can build up a superior hand for trumping them. Competition everywhere is the name of the Kremlin's game
The Russian side will be amenable to quid pro quo deals and cooperation – on its terms, of course – in each of the five arenas. If Obama shows willing to meet them halfway, US-Russian negotiations can go forward with a view to reaching amicable understandings on mutual aid, teamwork and co-existence. But if rapport is lacking, Russia will continue to put its counters down and confront America in every one of its global spheres of influence.
With an American economic meltdown demanding all his attention in his first year as president, the politically savvy in Moscow are convinced the new US president cannot afford a policy of confrontation with Russia and will opt for talking terms.