Analysis: what will Obama get back from Russia after ditching missile defence?

Vladimir Putin could be forgiven for having a celebratory shot of vodka with breakfast this morning at news that President Obama plans to abandon America’s missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.

His implacable opposition to the project has paid off, leaving the Kremlin emboldened in its drive to re-establish a strategic “sphere of privileged interests” over Russia’s former Soviet satellites.

By trading the loyalty of Poland and the Czech Republic to satisfy Russia’s security concerns, the United States is signalling that it no longer contests Moscow’s right to assert its interests in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine and Georgia’s chances of entering Nato over Russian objections have diminished further. The timing is disastrous for Ukraine in particular, given the Kremlin’s determination to reverse the pro-Western Orange Revolution and ensure victory for a pro-Russian candidate at presidential elections in January.
Times Archive

* Star wars: Reagan's retreat

Related Links

* Dismay as Obama ditches missile defence

The Baltic States, already in Nato, will be feeling a chill as they ponder an even more assertive Russia. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been among the Kremlin’s most vocal critics but Nato’s new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has declared a “true strategic partnership” with Russia his top priority.

The Bush Administration delighted in emphasising relations with the “new Europe” of former Soviet bloc countries, often at the expense of recalcitrant “old Europe” of Germany and France on foreign policy.

Mr Obama has shown that the US is no longer playing that game. He wants Russian help on Afghanistan and Iran and is leaving Europe to resolve its own relationship with Moscow on everything from energy security to historical grievances.

The Kremlin can barely believe its good fortune. Mr Obama has pressed the “reset” button to improve relations without obtaining anything more than permission for US aircraft to cross Russian airspace on resupply operations for troops in Afghanistan.

That was the most substantive outcome of the Moscow summit with President Medvedev in July. A treaty to replace the START II agreement in December may now be a little more generous in cutting the stockpiles of nuclear missiles held by the US and Russia.

But the big question remains over what to do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Russia has shown no inclination to budge on its refusal to support further sanctions against Tehran, nor has it cancelled a contract to sell S-300 air-defence missiles to the Islamic republic.

A senior Israeli MP, Zeev Elkin, warned in an interview with Russia’s Kommersant today that Tel Aviv could be forced into a pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if there was any sign that the Kremlin was about to sanction delivery of S-300s.

The mystery cloaking the alleged hijacking of the cargo ship Arctic Sea highlights the risk of conflict being triggered by freelance operations to deliver weapons.

Russia has argued consistently that Iran presents no current threat and that the missile shield, consisting of a radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, compromised its own national security. By cancelling the project, Mr Obama appears to have accepted both arguments.

He may be calculating that this will encourage President Medvedev to support tougher action against Iran’s nuclear programme when he visits the US next week for the G20 summit and the United Nations General Assembly. But Mr Obama learnt to his cost in July that it is Mr Putin, and not Mr Medvedev, who remains in charge in Moscow.

In fact, Moscow may become more intransigent, arguing that Washington itself no longer takes the threat as seriously as it did by cancelling the missile-defence shield. Any such argument would only harden Israel’s determination to act.

Some analysts in Russia have begun cynically to ask whether the Kremlin wants to see a war in Iran, arguing that this would send oil prices soaring and replenish state coffers emptied out by the economic crisis.

The Kremlin has grown increasingly anti-Western in tone in recent years and continues to blame America for the financial crisis that has forced Russia to spend its vast reserves to stave off economic collapse. Do hard-liners regard a conflict in Iran as payback for the costs of American economic excess?

For Mr Putin, the lesson of today’s decision is clear. Intransigence pays dividends because the US and the European Union lack the patience or determination to face Moscow down. That is a lesson that send alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power of Russia’s former Soviet dominions.


Post a Comment