It’s not often that a journalist manages to provoke immediate responses from the presidents of both the United States and Russia, but Peter Baker pulled it off Tuesday. Writing in The New York Times, Baker revealed the existence of a “secret letter” in which Barack Obama suggested that if Russia helped prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the United States might abandon its planned missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Both presidents denied that the letter offered an explicit quid pro quo, but interestingly both noted that such a trade could be a good one. Dmitri Medvedev stressed the two were already working together on Iran, and Obama pointed out that if the Iranian threat were eliminated, there would be no need for the missile defense system. Given that the two are set to meet next month in London, this seems like a positive development.


The proposed Central European missile defense system is probably the second or third biggest source of contention in U.S.-Russian relations (behind NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine, and perhaps Washington’s concerns about democratic retrenchment in Russia). At first glance, this makes sense: We need only remember the Cuban Missile Crisis to recall how sensitive great powers can be about another great power putting missiles too close to their borders. But on closer inspection, it seems bizarre that this issue is souring relations between the two countries. A limited system comprising ten interceptors cannot threaten Russia’s ability to retaliate in a nuclear conflict, so Moscow need be concerned only if the current plan is just a down-payment on a more extensive future system. From Washington’s perspective, the system is an odd priority given that it is designed to protect Europe, not the United States, from attack. What’s more it remains unclear if the system even works. (Among other things, the rocket booster for the European interceptors has yet to be tested.)


By contrast, the United States has quite a lot to gain by reducing Russian concerns. First and foremost, securing Russia’s assistance and thereby potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear issue surely would improve U.S. security more than a missile defense system in Central Europe ever could, especially if this is part of a broader effort to secure Middle Eastern peace.


Second, the economic crisis may be causing splits in the Russian ruling elite, with Russia’s siloviki (current and ex-security personnel) gathering behind Prime Minister Putin and a faction of economic liberals grouping around President Medvedev. Combined with the fact that the economic crisis has likely already made foreign scapegoats--particularly “the West”--favorite targets of Russian leaders, additional conflict with the United States would likely only help the Putin faction, while mitigating supposed threats from the West would likely strengthen Medvedev. A U.S. decision to back away from the missile defense system would be portrayed as a victory in Russia and would help Medvedev by demonstrating the virtue of more constructive engagement with Washington. And in the long term, the United States is likely to be better off if the economic faction behind Medvedev doesn’t lose this power struggle, as the siloviki are likely to be more antagonistic to the West.


Third, to the extent that the United States wants to “press the reset button” in its relations with Russia, resolving the issue of Central European missile defense might be one of the more painless ways to do so.


Finally, if dollars for defense are going to be harder to come by in a time of massive deficits, it is legitimate to ask whether a Central European missile defense system provides the best bang (or lack of bang, in this particular case) for the buck in terms of protecting the United States. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the European system could cost up to $14 billion.


There are, however, two important caveats that the Obama administration ought to keep in mind if it heads down this path. First, we have to be careful about the Czech and Polish reactions if we abandon the system. Both governments invested political capital in approving the deployment of the system, and both expected that that the missile defense system would provide, as the International Herald Tribune put it, a “guarantee of extra protection from the United States, above and beyond the mutual aid that NATO members can demand of allies if they are attacked.” It is crucial then that any decision to abandon the missile defense system be couched as a specific decision to review Bush administration policies and not as part of a new attitude of conciliation toward Russia at the expense of important Central European allies. Similarly, the administration will need to reassure the Russians that the United States takes their security concerns seriously while demonstrating that it did not shutter the system because of Russian threats.


Overall, given Russian political developments over the last decade, it seems likely that there will continue to be many points of friction between the United States and Russia during Obama’s term of office. Thus, we ought to carefully reduce or remove sources of conflict where we can, especially when there’s little cost to U.S. national security. And if in doing so the administration can nudge Russian domestic politics in a potentially more pro-Western direction, then so much the better.


Joshua A. Tucker is an Associate Professor of Politics at NYU and a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project.