Obama's Risky Move on Missile Defense Shield

Washington Matters

Obama's Risky Move on Missile Defense Shield

Obama's efforts to win Russian cooperation on Iran will only whet the Kremlin's appetite.

There's no reason for surprise at President Obama's decision to drop Czech and Polish sites for a missile shield aimed at containing a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Obama signaled his ambivalence about the Bush administration program before taking office. The Russians have long railed against the system. And whether or not the system threatened Russian security, as the Kremlin has always claims, it did play into the age-old Russian fear of encirclement. But the timing of the announcement, less than two weeks before seven-party talks over Iran's nuclear program are set to begin, carries a note of desperation. And for that, Russian hearing is pitch perfect.

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Speculation has been building for months that the White House might use the envisioned Polish-based interceptor missiles and Czech-based radar facility as bargaining chips in exchange for something that would be much more helpful in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions: Russian cooperation. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has the power to block new sanctions on Iran. Moreover, Moscow can undermine any sanctions that the U.S. and its NATO allies might impose unilaterally. The proposal that has garnered the most attention in recent months, a cut off of gasoline and other refined petroleum products, is something Russia could easily counteract, either on its own or through Turkmenistan. Russia is also Iran's main outside supplier for nuclear technology and weaponry, not to mention civilian aircraft and parts for an Iranian air fleet long starved by existing trade bans with the U.S. and Europe. Without Russian help, Iran would truly be on its own.

With new intelligence and better technology, the Obama administration decided it could replace the planned East European system with one that would contain Iran just as effectively without ruffling Russian feathers. Everybody's happy, right?


Trouble is, Russia isn't biting. Essentially, its reaction to news was to pocket the gain and say, "Thanks. What else have you got?"

Russia has bristled for years over what it considers U.S. disregard of its own foreign policy priorities -- most recently in comments by Vice President Biden -- suggesting that its opinion no longer matters. Now, it sees itself as having the U.S. over a barrel, and it is determined to make the most of the situation. It wants the U.S. to recognize the entire former Soviet Union as a Russian sphere of influence. That would include explicit guarantees that neither Georgia nor Ukraine will ever be admitted to NATO or the European Union. Obama is likely to balk at both. Such statements would effectively reduce both states to Russian satellites, whether or not the Kremlin ever followed up with a new invasion of either.

The governments of both Poland and the Czech Republic took considerable political risks in agreeing to host the missile defense sites, over the opposition of many of their citizens. The Czech government that approved its deal fell this past spring. In his formal announcement that he was scrapping the envisioned Czech and Polish bases, Obama took pains to spell out that the U.S. is still committed to the defense of both countries, as per the terms of NATO's Article V.

Both countries will be looking for more tangible defense aid in place of the lost facilities. The other ex-Warsaw Pact members of NATO--particularly the ex-Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- will also be watching what Washington does next very carefully. They'll want evidence that the U.S. is both willing and able to protect them against a resurgent Russia. If they don't get it, some of them may decide the safest thing is to make their own accommodations. It has escaped no one's notice that, in a case of abominable timing, Obama chose to make his announcement on the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.