Russia Sees Obama As Willing to Reassess U.S. Missile Defense Plan

By Patrick Goodenough | March 4, 2009 | 4:41 AM EST

A ground-based interceptor missile is launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on December 5, 2008, minutes before intercepting and destroying a target missile in a successful test of U.S. missile defense capabilities. (Photo: Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance)

( – President Obama and his Russian counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev, have both denied reports of a U.S. offer to abandon missile defense plans in Central Europe in return for Russian help in the West’s nuclear dispute with Iran.
But both also signaled once again that there was room for discussion on the Bush-era plans, which Moscow vehemently opposes and whose effectiveness and affordability Obama administration officials have questioned.
During a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama said media reports had mischaracterized a recent letter he wrote to Medvedev by saying he had suggested “some sort of quid pro quo.”
What his letter had done, Obama said, was restate the U.S. position that the proposed missile defense shield “is directed towards not Russia, but Iran.”
Obama said the letter also explained that “obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons, that reduces the pressure for, or the need for, a missile defense system.”
Medvedev, speaking during a state visit to Madrid, also denied that there had been any discussion of a trade-off between U.S. dropping its ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield plans and Russia helping to persuade Iran to end its nuclear activities.
But he said the Obama letter was viewed as a sign that the new administration in Washington was prepared to discuss the issue that has caused a rift between the two.
“That’s already positive, because several months ago we were receiving a different signal [from the Bush administration]: ‘The decision has been made, there is nothing to talk about, we will do everything as decided,’” Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.
The comments will add to conjecture that Washington is open to reassessing the plan to deploy missile interceptors in Poland and an associated radar tracking station in the Czech Republic.
The Bush administration spent years laying the groundwork for agreements with the two NATO allies, finally securing deals in 2008 in the face of considerable domestic opposition in both countries.
‘US soldiers in Poland after years of Russian domination’
The Kremlin, which still regards the former Warsaw Pact region as  part of its sphere of influence, claims the BMD plan will undermine its own nuclear deterrent.
Russian official have dismissed Pentagon assertions that the shield will not have the technical capability of defending against the Russian arsenal and is clearly designed to counter and deter future missile attack from “rogue states” like Iran.

(Photo: Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance)

Medvedev turned up the pressure on Washington one day after last November’s presidential election by announcing that Russia would station Iskander short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordering Poland, if the BMD shield went ahead.
That implied threat to Poland has been repeated frequently since then, along with the corollary offer not to deploy the Iskanders if the BMD plan was dropped – an offer reiterated on Tuesday by Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
The Polish government, whose security concerns vis-a-vis Russia escalated after last summer’s Russian invasion of Georgia, secured as part of its agreement to host the missile interceptors a U.S. pledge to provide Warsaw with Patriot surface-to-air missiles to beef up its own air defenses.
Now, with U.S. commitment to the missile defense shield in question, Poland is stressing that the Patriot deployment should take place irrespective of the BMD plans.
Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who held talks in Washington last week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Polish television that the Patriot plans would go ahead.
On Tuesday, Polish Defense Minister Aleksander Szczyglo stressed the importance of the BMD plan to his country.
“The shield is a sign of Poland’s presence in NATO,” Polish Radio quoted him as saying. “The deployment of the system in Poland means American  soldiers in Poland, after so many years of Russian domination and presence in this country. It is a signal that Poland had ceased to be a gray buffer zone between the West and Russia.”
In the neighboring Czech Republic, meanwhile, the government is also watching developments warily.
A U.S. reversal on the radar station plan could be politically damaging for Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, a strong supporter of the BMD plan who views it as a way to strengthen ties with Washington while countering Moscow’s influence in the region.
The Lidove noviny Czech daily said Tuesday that the government was still awaiting a definitive answer from the U.S., and that Obama was expected to provide further clarity when he visits Prague in early April, for a U.S.-European Union meeting.
The visit to the Czech capital will come two days after Obama and Medvedev are expected to meet in London, where both will be attending a G20 summit on the economic crisis.
‘Iran’s nuclear, missile activities must end first’
In the U.S., the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) said Tuesday that movement towards deploying the missile defense shield in Europe must proceed.
“For the United States of America to stop the deployment of the missile defense system in Europe without complete verification that the Iranian nuclear program is dismantled and destroyed as well as the termination of development and deployment of long and medium-range ballistic missiles would put in jeopardy and risk the lives of the American public, the European public and the U.S. armed forces deployed in Europe and the Middle East,” MDAA chairman Riki Ellison said in a statement.
Ellison also expressed support for U.S. outreach to Russia and the hope that Moscow would be able to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.
The outreach should also be “extended to collaboration and cooperation with Russia on their missile defense systems … to help defend Europe, Russia and the United States if Iran chooses to ignore Russia’s influence,” he said.
Russia to date has not publicly supported Western efforts to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear activities;  on the contrary , it has criticized unilateral U.S. sanctions and has blocked or weakened efforts at the U.N. Security Council to impose effective U.N. sanctions on Tehran by threatening to use its veto power.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow