Obama’s Missile Plan Might Not Satisfy Russia

WASHINGTON — Even before President Obama reached the lectern to announce his plans to reconfigure missile defense plans in Europe, critics at home and abroad were accusing him of knuckling under to Russia. And to be sure, Russia was happy to be rid of former President George W. Bush’s planned missile shield.

But does the new missile defense architecture outlined by Mr. Obama actually satisfy Russian objections? That remains a more complicated question.

The Bush plan to counter Iranian missiles with a sophisticated radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland arguably never posed any real threat to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which even in its shrunken post-cold war state could easily overwhelm such a system. So the Russian complaints fell into two broad categories, one geopolitical and the other technical.

In part, Russia found the Bush plan so offensive because it involved placing American weapons systems — and the American military personnel to run them — in two Eastern European countries that used to be satellites of Moscow. The Kremlin often cited its understanding of what the United States promised at the end of the cold war, to not deploy weapons systems in former Warsaw Pact countries, although American officials have denied such an explicit commitment.

The fact that both Polish and Czech officials viewed the American missile defense system as a security blanket against Russian adventurism rather than focusing on the Iranian threat only deepened the suspicion in the Kremlin. And the plan to deploy in those two countries was seen in the context of NATO’s relentless march to Russia’s borders as it admitted more members over the past decade or so, just one more part of what seemed in Moscow to be a plan to hem Russia in.

The more specific, technical Russian grievances against the missile defense plan involved not so much the system Mr. Bush designed but its potential down the road. Russian officials acknowledged that the system could not thwart its hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But they argued that 10 interceptors could be eventually expanded to 100 or more. And they contended that the interceptors could be fitted with warheads and turned into offensive weapons close to their territory.

Perhaps even more disturbing from the Russian perspective was the plan to install an advanced radar called X-band in the Czech Republic. The radar can “see” 360 degrees and deep into the European part of Russia, where many of its missile silos are based. Russian officials protested against the intrusion and assumed that America wanted the radar to keep track of any Russian missiles.

How then does the Obama plan address those concerns? Mr. Obama ordered the development of a system that would deploy smaller SM-3 interceptors in 2011, at first on ships but later on land in Europe, aimed more at short- and medium-range Iranian missiles rather than the intercontinental missiles Russia has. The radar in the Czech Republic would no longer be needed; instead new land, air and space sensors would be relied on to track missile launches and their trajectories.

The cancellation of the radar in the Czech Republic could be seen as the most satisfying aspect of the new plan from the Russian perspective because it will keep the Americans from peering deeply into their territory. And the SM-3s, at least as currently designed, are not capable of taking out the intercontinental missiles that Russia has.

On the other hand, the Obama administration said it planned to deploy the SM-3s in as many as three land-based sites in Europe starting in 2015 and offered both Poland and the Czech Republic the opportunity to host those missiles. Since Poland was willing to host the larger interceptor missiles as part of the Bush plan, it presumably might accept the smaller missiles Mr. Obama wants to use.

Even if Poland and the Czech Republic do not choose to host missiles under the Obama plan, other former Warsaw Pact countries like Romania or Bulgaria might. And the Obama plan calls for dozens and eventually possibly even hundreds of the smaller interceptors, not just the 10 larger missiles included in Mr. Bush’s plan.

Moreover, advisers to Mr. Obama said they hoped to upgrade the SM-3 interceptors so that by 2020 they could be used to knock down intercontinental missiles as well as the shorter-range missiles now being countered. And officials said they would continue to develop the ground-based interceptors from the Bush plan on the chance that they might be needed later.

So how will the Russians interpret this? Will they simply declare victory and move on? Or will they focus on the aspects of the plan that do not address their past concerns?

“The Russians are probably not going to be pleased that we are continuing with missile defense efforts in Europe,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. “But at the same time, there are two changes in this architecture that should allay some of their, what we think, unfounded concerns.” Those would be the elimination of the radar in the Czech Republic and the switch to smaller missiles that “they simply cannot, at least rationally, argue bears any kind of threat to Russia,” he said.

While Mr. Obama personally called the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic to notify them of his decision, he left it to his national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, a retired Marine officer, to inform Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, who was summoned to the West Wing.

Several Russian lawmakers, analysts and other leading figures called the Obama decision a concession to Moscow. But President Dmitri A. Medvedev was more cautious as his team evaluated the new plan. He praised Mr. Obama’s “responsible approach” but gave no further indication as to whether Moscow was finally satisfied.


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