A Cautious Russia Praises Obama Move

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 18, 2009

HELSINKI, Sept. 17 -- Russia expressed cautious approval of President Obama's decision Thursday to overhaul U.S. missile defense. But reaction was mixed in Poland and the Czech Republic, where some voiced relief and others anger that a contentious proposal to base the shield in their countries had been scrapped.

The Kremlin, which had condemned the original plan as a threat to national security, welcomed the U.S. announcement and said it was waiting for details. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the move created "good conditions" for working with the United States on joint defenses and praised Obama's "responsible attitude."

"Naturally, we will have to conduct substantial, expert consultations, and of course, our country is ready for this," Medvedev said. "We will work together to develop effective measures against the risks of missile proliferation, measures that take into account the interests and concerns of all sides and ensure equal security for all countries in European territory."

But Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, former chief of the Russian military's main research institute for nuclear strategy, cautioned that the reconfigured U.S. system could still pose a threat to Russia. "Everything depends on the scale of such a system," he told the Interfax news agency. "If it comprises a multitude of facilities, including a space echelon, it may threaten the Russian potential of nuclear deterrence."

Russian officials have said a U.S. shield based on the smaller, slower interceptors of the Navy's sea-based Aegis system would not threaten Russian forces. But the Obama plan envisions using more-advanced versions of those missiles, some based on land, and a high-resolution radar similar to the one originally proposed for the Czech Republic, perhaps in the Caucasus. Russian military officials have said they might have concerns depending on where the new missiles and radar are deployed and on their capabilities.

The immediate reaction among Russian politicians, though, was delight, with several lawmakers hailing the American reversal as a triumph for the Kremlin's firm opposition to the missile shield and a sign of Obama's commitment to strengthening ties with Moscow.

"First of all, it is a victory for common sense," Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said in a phone interview. "We perceive this as another positive signal suggesting that in the current administration in Washington, pragmatism prevails over an ideological approach to foreign policy."

Konstantin Kosachyov, his counterpart in the lower house, said the move confirmed that Russia had been right all along in arguing that the United States had exaggerated assessments of Iran's intercontinental missile program in promoting the system. "Finally, the Americans have agreed with us," he said.

Russian officials said no deal had been struck with the United States for the policy shift and warned that Washington would be disappointed if it expected the Kremlin to put more pressure on Iran in return. "The Americans have simply corrected their own mistake," said Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to NATO. "And we are not duty-bound to pay someone for putting their own mistakes right."

In Warsaw, the Polish government played down the decision to abandon plans to base 10 high-speed interceptors in the country and emphasized that the Obama administration had asked Poland to host some of the SM-3 missiles in the reconfigured shield. Officials said Washington also pledged to follow through on plans to deploy surface-to-air Patriot missiles in the country despite Russian objections.

"There is a chance for strengthening Europe's security with special attention given to Poland," Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters. "I would not describe what is going on today as a defeat for Poland."

But other politicians who had fought for the original plan, despite public opposition, expressed dismay at the American about-face, and the announcement appeared to catch many senior officials by surprise.

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