By Philip P. Pan and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 18, 2009 11:42 AM
The secretary general of NATO called Friday for greater cooperation between the Western alliance and Russia, including the possibility of linking their missile defense systems in an effort to stem proliferation and deter attacks by nuclear-armed nations such as North Korea and, potentially, Iran.
A day after President Obama announced that he was abandoning a Bush-era plan for a missile defense system that Russia strongly opposed, and turning instead to a partly sea-based shield, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for "a new beginning" for NATO-Russia relations built on practical cooperation instead of "mistrust" and "flawed expectations."
"In my view, the proliferation of ballistic missile technology is of concern not just to NATO nations, but to Russia too," Rasmussen said in his first major public speech as NATO secretary general. " . . . Both NATO and Russia have a wealth of experience in missile defense. We should now work to combine this experience to our mutual benefit."
Among other things, the NATO chief called for a joint security review with Russia and a rejuvenation of the NATO-Russia Council, which he said should be used as a "forum for open and unbiased dialogue" for issues of peace and stability in Europe.
"If North Korea stays nuclear, and if Iran becomes nuclear, some of their neighbors might feel compelled to follow suit," he said. "Such a multi-nuclear world is not in NATO's interest -- and it's definitely not in Russia's interest either."
There was no immediate reaction from either Washington or Moscow to the speech, which was delivered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels. But wire services reported that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday praised Obama's decision about which type of missile defense to pursue.
"I very much hope that this right and brave decision will be followed up by the full cancellation of all restrictions on cooperation with Russia and high-technology transfer to Russia as well as a boost to expand the WTO to embrace Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan," Putin said at an investment forum in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, according to the Associated Press.
Reaction to the U.S. announcement 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.
On Thursday, 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 Kosachev, 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.
"If this is confirmed, it would mean failure in the United States' long-term mentality for this part of Europe," Aleksander Szczyglo, security adviser to President Lech Kaczynski, said on Polish television.
Former president Lech Walesa, who led the Solidarity movement that challenged Communist rule, had stronger words: "The Americans have always tended to their interests only and have taken advantage of everyone else."
Lukasz Kulesa of the Polish Institute of International Affairs said Obama has left Eastern Europe with a muddled view of his attitude toward the region. "There is an impression held by some people that this administration puts less importance on this part of Europe and favors relations with Russia," he said.
In Prague, former Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government collapsed after agreeing to host the U.S. radar despite polls showing the public opposed it by a ratio of 2 to 1, blasted Obama's move as "really bad news for the Czech Republic and also a big part of Europe."
But Jan Hamacek, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Czech Parliament, said he welcomed a U.S. plan that focused on the more imminent threat posed by short- and medium-range missiles in Iran.
"The right has tried to make this a political issue," said Hamacek, a Social Democrat. "Our relations are excellent with the United States and our allies . . . and I don't see the need for a special relationship."
Pan reported from Helsinki, and Wilgoren reported from Washington. Special correspondents Anna Masterova in Moscow, Bruce Konviser in Prague and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.