Friday, September 18, 2009

Shelving of US Missile Defence in Europe: How Does it Impact on US-Russia Relations?

On September 17, 2009, President Barack Obama decided to do an overhaul of the US missile defence in Europe. The missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic is going to be replaced with a revamped project, after a careful reconsideration of the threat from Iran. Obama, making a statement on the subject, said, "This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program."

While the two East European allies are not entirely happy with the development, Russia has appreciated what the US has done, with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, saying "We value the US president's responsible approach towards implementing our agreements ... I am ready to continue the dialogue." He went further to say that there are "good conditions" on the ground to start joint anti-missile projects. Konstantin Kosachev, a prominent MP and Chairman of the International Affairs Committee, State Duma of the Russian Federation, said: "The Obama administration is starting to understand us. Now we can talk about restoration of the strategic partnership between Russia and the United States."

How does Obama's temporarily shelving of the missile defence programme affect US-Russia relations? Will Russia come on board on Iran sanctions? Will Russia become far more cooperative on the Afghan front?

The decision was taken after a careful reading of the situation, noting that the threat from Iran's long-range missiles was not so immediate. The decision was also based on advances in US missile defense technology, particularly with land and sea based interceptors. Elaborating on the revamped programme, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that interceptor missiles would be initially deployed on ships in order to enable easy transportation from one region to the other. He added, "The second phase, about 2015, will involve fielding upgraded land-based SM-3s. Consultations have begun with allies, starting with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting a land-based version of the SM-3 and other components of the system."

While the programme has been been put on hold for sometime, it is not being scrapped entirely. As Gates pointed out, the first stage does not include fielding of those interceptors in Europe, but a second stage, may be in 2015 will deploy the upgraded land-based SM-3s in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is quite apparent that the Russians are aware of this. For instance, one of the scholars on NATO at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy, Vladimir Shtol pointed out, "I don't believe the US would ever fully back out of the missile shield, because it is in their long-term interests and closely connected with their strategy in Europe." Similarly, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, says that the issue if never off the table. It may be off the agenda temporarily. He said, "Nothing has been canceled, missile defense has just been postponed. For a while this topic is off the agenda, but later it will return. So, for now the political situation may improve, but the underlying pattern of relations is unlikely to change in any basic way." However, there are Russian specialists in India like Nandan Unnikrishnan who believe that missile defence in Europe is a closed issue and that Obama's current posture is not temporary, but a permanent move. However, he added on to say that the missile defence issue will be a closed one, at least for the next couple of years.

While the US looks the change in posture as a major concession to Moscow, what does Washington expect in return? Tougher actions on Iran by Moscow may be one, better cooperation in the war on terror in Afghanistan may be another one. Renewal of START talks with lesser number of conditionalities (from Russian side) could be another expectation. Will Russia be able to deliver on all these major issues?

While tough action on Iran by Moscow is conceivable, it is not certain. If one has to go by what the Russian Foreign Minister Sregei Lavrov said last week, Iran issue is not going to be an easy one. He said, "I do not think these sanctions will be approved by the United Nations Security Council ... They [Iran] need an equal place in this regional dialogue. Iran is a partner that has never harmed Russia in any way." He went on to addd that the US cannot expect to have a timetable as far as the Iran issue is concerned. In fact, Lavrov went a step ahead to say that the changed US posture is not necessarily a concession, but merely a correction of the past mistake. A Christian Science Monitor report on the subject says that while the changed US posture on missile defence issue may contribute to a warmer dialogue between the US and Russia, Washington should not expect major concessions on some of the issues of key concern to the US like Iran. If Moscow has to extend some reciprocal concessions to Washington, the US will have to be more accomodative to Russian concerns on NATO expansion into the Russian backyard. In fact, as the US National Intelligence Strategy 2009 noted, Russia "may continue to seek avenues for reasserting power and influence in ways that complicate US interests." For instance, on September 15, 2009, Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has signed agreements on cooperation in the military sphere with heads of the military departments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia Merab Kishmaria and Yuri Tanayev. As per the agreements, the headquarters of the Russian military base in Abkhazia will be in the Black Sea port of Gudauty, and in South Ossetia -- in Tskhinvali. The strength of the personnel of each of the military bases will be around 1,700. The agreements are signed for a period of 49 years, with an automatic prolongation for five years. These moves may come to compete with the US interests in the Russian backyard. Again, there are Russian experts in India who argue that the US is going to slow on the NATO expansion and that it will not pursue inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO in the near future.

Howevers, what appears certain is progress on arms control measures such as the START. The 1991 START that is expiring in December 2009 is likely to be replaced by a new arms reduction treaty. In fact, Lukyanov says, "Now we can be sure the new START agreement will be completed on time, because the vexing issue of missile defense and how it affects the strategic balance has been removed for the time being. “That’s quite an important matter."

Lastly, how does the changed posture affect Russian position on the war on terror in Afghanistan. Russia may possibly come around assisting the US significantly in the war in Afghanistan. However, what Obama has to do for long term stability in Afghanistan should include not just Russia, but also other regional powers such as Iran, India, China, Japan and some of the Central Asian states. The US has to become proactive to establish a larger colaition of states on Afghanistan if there has to be peace and stability in the Af-Pak region.

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