Obama scraps missile defense shield plans for Eastern Europe

What effect will it have on Ukraine?

The recent US decision not to install its missile defend shield in Eastern Europe made headlines across the world. On the one hand, these US plans had irritated Russia; on the other hand, Poland and the Czech Republic had regarded them as a tangible guarantee of their national security.

Characteristically, the Obama administration never described this decision as an abandonment of its plans. Instead the White House issued a statement on September 17 that reads as follows: “President Obama has approved the recommendation of Secretary of Defense Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a phased, adaptive approach for missile defense in Europe.” Peviously, the Bush administration insisted that the deployment of radar stations in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland was required primarily as defense against actions on the part of unpredictable countries such as Iran.

However, the US intelligence altered its assessment of the Iranian nuclear program’s potential, Obama said. The new US administration plans to send warships with missile interceptors to Northern and Southern Europe. The land-based missile defense facilities will be deployed in Europe in 2015. “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,” said President Obama. Remarkably, most of the visitors of the CNN website (73 percent) voiced their support for Obama’s statement.

Later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stressed that the United States was not going to abandon the missile shield plan altogether but would shift the emphasis from defense against long-range missiles to regional threats—in other words, missiles capable of hitting Israel or European countries. According to US officials, Iran is more likely to be developing short-range rather than ICBMs.

President Obama’s message was obviously addressed to Moscow in the first place. Not coincidentally, he stressed, “We’ve also repeatedly made clear to Russia that its concerns about our previous missile defense programs were entirely unfounded… In confronting that threat, we welcome Russians’ cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests, even as we continue to—we continue our shared efforts to end Iran’s illicit nuclear program.”

President Medvedev of Russia welcomed Obama’s statement and said he was prepared to discuss “joint work in assessing the risks involved in the proliferation of missile systems across the world,” adding that “this statement shows that there are adequate conditions for organizing this work. Of course, there must be specific expert consultations and our country is prepared for them.”

As was to be expected, Republicans lashed out at Obama for his statement. John McCain, the presidential candidate who lost to Obama, criticized the move as “seriously misguided.” John Bolton, former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security under President Bush, said the move was “unambiguously a bad decision… This gives away an important defensive mechanism against threats from countries like Iran and other rogue states, not only for the US but for Europe as well… It is a concession to the Russians with absolutely nothing in return.”

Characteristically, Poland and the Czech Republic found themselves divided on Obama’s missile shield overhaul. President Lech Kaczy ski of Poland described the decision of the Obama administration to abandon the plans to deploy stationary missile defense system in Europe as a “mistake,” while Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his cabinet insisted that the new system “can be better” than the previous one. Tusk declared that the latest US political decision has not disadvantnaged Poland.

Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government had signed the agreements with the US, said these changes to the US missile shield program pose a threat to the Czech Republic’s national independence: “We are in a situation where there is no close linkage in terms of partnership, security, or alliance, so this is a threat to a degree.”

Conversely, the current Czech Prime Minister, Jan Fischer said: “There are no reasons for changes in our relationship with the United States because the Obama administration is scrapping its plan for a missile shield on Czech territory. Our relations with the United States are excellent. We are allies and strong partners.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described Obama’s decision as “a positive step in the direction of an inclusive and transparent process … It is my clear impression that the American plan on missile defense will involve NATO ... to a higher degree in the future.”

A number of experts believe that Obama’s decision will in some or other way affect Ukraine. After all, one of the stumbling blocks in the relations between Russia and the United States is Russia’s claim to privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. No one knows what concessions Washington will make to Russia in order to obtain its support in solving numerous problems. Formally, the Obama administration says it will not accept any spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space.

Official Kyiv has always believed that the plans harbored by the US side in terms of missile defense shield in Europe have no direct bearing on Ukraine’s interests and that Washington’s decisions regarding the deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic have everything to do with these countries and their sovereign right to ensure their national security in whichever way they deem necessary. A recent statement by Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reads: “Ukraine has taken into consideration the decision made by the United States with regard to its new ‘phased’ approach to missile defense in Europe.”

How do Poland and the Czech Republic feel about Obama’s revision of the missile defense shield plans for Eastern Europe? Isn’t Washington sending the wrong signal to Russia, which opposed these plans? Will Obama’s kid-glove approach to Russia prove more effective than Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union?

COMMENTS

Jiri Schneider, program director, Prague Security Studies Institute:

“The new US administration has decided against the deployment of missile defense facilities in Europe; it is considering other areas of influence. I believe it would be wrong to interpret this change in attitude as one aimed at altering the status of our relationships. My country remains a member of NATO and the EU. We have to focus on other projects that realize our membership of these organizations in issues relating to security and defense.

“We have to accept Obama’s statement calmly. We must understand that this is a sovereign decision made by the United States. Honestly, this decision did not catch us unawares, for there had been warning signals, especially when the US government set about revising its missile defense concept. Two years ago the US Congress came up with pretty similar ideas that were recently adopted by the President, including mobile missile defense facilities.

“Obama’s statement does not signify an end to the relations between Prague and Washington. This week the defense minister of the Czech Republic is on a visit in the United States. Today he will meet with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. I think that there are lots of things we can do together, including in matters relating to defense.

“In my opinion, the current US administration’s decision not to deploy missile defense systems in Europe is a gesture addressed to Russia. It remains to be seen whether Russia gets the message, or whether it interprets it as a sign of weakness and its victory—for this is precisely how the Russian media took it. We have no response from the Russian side, nor do we know whether Russia will respond by canceling some of its previous aggressive statements and intentions of deploying its Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.

“Unless we see any of this, we will be forced, regrettably, to believe that Obama made a unilateral move that was left without response.

“I believe that the [US] administration had two things in mind when dropping its missile defense plans for Europe. On the one hand, it was an attempt to persuade Iran to cooperate with the rest of the world, in which case the US would need Russia’s assistance. On the other hand, it could be an attempt to ‘re-set’ relations with Russia. These two things must be what Washington has on its mind, so I believe that other matters, such as Venezuela and Central Europe, come next.

“Obama’s decision reaffirmed the US stand in developing the NATO architecture along the lines that are beneficial to all the Allies, including Poland and the Czech Republic.

“I doubt that Obama’s decision will lead to success. Well, let us keep our fingers crossed. Let us wish him every success. After all, the US President has the right to make certain gestures, so the question is what conclusions he will make if these gestures are not reciprocated.”