Foreign Policy Blogs

I Will Transmit This Message to Vladimir

“I will transmit this message to Vladimir”, outgoing Russian president Dmitry Medvedev tells Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in response to the US leader’s candid assurance that he will have a freer hand after being re-elected next November. Perhaps Obama wishes the US elections had the same sort of predictability of outcomes seen in Moscow?

The private chat, picked up surreptitiously by the world’s microphones, became a sensation due to Obama’s premature boast. But it also offered a cringe-worthy contrast between the supreme (over)confidence of the US president and the obsequious smallness of his Russian counterpart, hurrying to consult with Putin on every issue even while he remains nominally in charge.

“‘I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir’ – Story of poor Dima’s life”, quipped the British journalist Tom Parfitt on Twitter.

The exchange also reflects a painful geopolitical reality: that, behind the illusion of bipolarity maintained by the nuclear talks, it’s a case of the US doing the talking, and Russia the listening. It’s likely that the planned US missile shield in Europe, which America claims is designed to shield an attack from Iran but which the Putin government claims is actually aimed against Russia, will go ahead sooner or later despite Russian objections. As with the last few major international negotiations – over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Syria – Russia’s strong rhetoric is likely to precede eventually acquiescing to the West or being over-ruled altogether.

  • Zeke

    Give Obama and Medvedev a break when it comes to missile defense.

    While there is no denying US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev’s remarks at last month’s Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul were both political gaffes, the encounter was not an example of an over-confident US president strong-arming an obsequious Russian president on missile defense as Mr Nikitin suggested. The exchange merely represented some realities of the current US-Russian dynamic and could signal a shift to a more cooperative foreign policy strategy.

    Bipolarity in nuclear talks is not an illusion as Mr. Nikitin proposed. The US and Russia maintain larger nuclear arsenals than any other countries in the world and have signed several bilateral treaties in an effort to limit their size, scope, and location; the most recent of which is the “New START” treaty that went into effect on January 26, 2011. Despite the fact that Russia’s conventional military force is a shadow of its former Soviet self, its nuclear arsenal is still singularly capable of maintaining strategic balance with the US. Bipolarity is therefore a reality of nuclear discussions between the US and Russia, not an illusion.

    The bipolar nuclear balance is unquestionably why ballistic missile defense (BMD) is such an important foreign policy issue for the US and Russian Presidents. Although the size of the US and NATO-proposed BMD systems in Europe are incapable of upsetting the strategic balance of power with Russia, neither side can back down on the issue without receiving a significant amount of political backlash. If the US acquiesced on the BMD issue, the US President would almost certainly face domestic criticism from right-wing conservatives and international criticism from Eastern European countries who could lose faith in the security guarantees of the West. If the Russian President backs down, he would likely face serious domestic criticism from hardliners in the State Duma. More importantly, some could view capitulation on missile defense as evidence of a potentially weak Russian executive. Weakness is something the Russian President cannot afford in light of Russia’s shifting political landscape and recent anti-Kremlin protests, which reportedly sent more than 100,000 Moscow residents to the streets. To complicate matters, at the time of the Nuclear Security summit, President Obama was just over six months from an election and President Medvedev was just over one month away from turning the Russian Presidency over to Vladimir Putin.

    In light of these issues, President Obama and President Medvedev’s exchange at the Nuclear Security Summit simply represented the realities of the current US-Russian dynamic on missile defense. Instead of viewing the incident as evidence of an over-confident President Obama attempting to strong arm a subservient President Medvedev, the watchful analyst would view it with cautious optimism as a shift away from the traditional power balancing strategies of both sides. Without question, the next milestone to watch will be the NATO summit in Chicago, May 20-21, 2012. While the summit is unlikely to produce an overarching solution to the BMD issue, the declarations and press releases from the summit will indicate if the next US President and returning Russian President will be able to pursue a more cooperative strategy on missile defense.


Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs