U.S. Missile Defense Shift Bruises Some European Friends but Pleases Moscow

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Friday, September 18, 2009

DEFENSE SECRETARY Robert M. Gates said Thursday that the Obama administration's decision to scrap plans for a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic was based "almost exclusively" on a "changed intelligence assessment" about Iran's missile capabilities and by "enhanced technology." No doubt there is much truth in that: Iran has been working harder on the intermediate-range missiles that a new system is intended to intercept, and it is more ready to deploy them. It always seemed to us that the Bush administration's push to install a largely unproven interceptor system for long-range missiles was poorly justified.

Nevertheless Mr. Gates's "almost" speaks volumes -- because the suggestion by other administration spokesmen that the decision had nothing to do with Russia will probably not be credible to much of the rest of the world, including the Russians themselves. By replacing a planned radar system in the Czech Republic with another in the Caucasus and by ending a commitment to place 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland, President Obama satisfies the unjustified demands of Russia's leaders, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Moscow implausibly claimed to feel threatened by those systems; in reality, Russia objects to any significant U.S. deployment in NATO countries that once belonged to the Soviet bloc. Following his meeting with Mr. Obama in July, Mr. Medvedev declared a linkage between U.S. concessions on missile defense and the conclusion of a new strategic weapons agreement.

Mr. Obama, who -- as it happens -- will meet Mr. Medvedev in New York next week, has now, whether it was his intention or not, conceded to him. "We appreciate this responsible move by the U.S. president toward realizing our agreement," Mr. Medvedev crowed Thursday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also didn't get the administration's memo: She called the change "a hopeful signal for overcoming difficulties with Russia when it comes to a uniform strategy to combat the threat of Iran together."

In fact, administration officials say they sought nothing from Russia in exchange for the missile decision -- and, it's worth noting, there have been no parallel steps by Moscow to address major U.S. concerns in Europe or anywhere else. Mr. Putin's foreign minister reiterated just a few days ago that Russia will not support new sanctions against Iran. The strategic arms agreement, though desirable, is of far greater interest to Russia than to the United States.

Nor has Russia moderated its aggressive stance toward Georgia, Ukraine and other neighbors that it claims should be subject to its dominion. In Central Europe, its aim is to weaken the ties of such countries as Poland and the Czech Republic to NATO and eventually convert them to buffer states. In this, there are worrisome signs that it is making progress. Whatever the intentions of the Obama administration, much of the public and the political elites of those countries believe they have been let down by the alliance -- and in particular by the United States -- in the face of mounting Russian belligerence.

The administration could have defused this reaction by offering other NATO commitments to Poland and the Czech Republic and by demonstrating that their concerns about Russia are taken seriously. Administration officials say they did just that: Poland and the Czech Republic, they say, will have the right of first refusal on the deployment of ground-based pieces of the new system. But officials from the two nations say that they were handled callously. The raw feelings were evident in public statements from figures like former Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek, who said that "the Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before."

It may be, as the Pentagon says, that its new plan will provide better protection more quickly from the threat of Iranian missiles. And that, after all, is the point of this project. Mr. Obama has been clear in publicly opposing Russia's neo-imperialism, and we don't doubt his commitment to the U.S. alliance with Poland or with the Czech Republic, which he visited in April. Still, in adopting its new course, the Obama administration has clearly bruised some of the staunchest U.S. allies in Europe while encouraging the Kremlin's hard-liners. It needs to do more to repair that collateral damage.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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