Jan 29th 2009
From The Economist print edition
America is holding back its planned missile shield in eastern Europe
BELIEVE the hype, and America’s planned missile-defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic risked starting a new cold war. The Russians, claiming that they were intolerably provocative, even threatened to station new short-range missiles in Kaliningrad and to target their existing nuclear warheads at Europe. Many west European countries thought the whole affair epitomised both the Bush administration’s clumsy foreign policy and the destructive paranoia of the ex-communist countries in Europe’s east.
Now things are looking different. Barack Obama criticised the waste of money on “unproven” missile-defence technology during his presidential campaign. At the forthcoming Munich security conference, the Americans are expected to announce a review of the whole scheme. That could take a long time. For their part, the Russians said semi-officially this week that they would halt the planned deployment of the short-range missiles to Kaliningrad (although they are also pressing Belarus to accept new rocket bases).
On the surface, all of this sounds like good news. America hopes that Russia will come to see the missile shield as a joint project against Iran. Poland has removed a sticking-point by saying privately that it is willing to accept “intrusive” Russian monitoring of the base when it is built. Previously it had been twitchy about Russian snooping.
The new administration’s willingness to talk about arms control helps as well. The main treaty dealing with long-range nuclear weapons, Start-1, expires in December. The Bush administration seemed not to care, which stoked the Russians’ feeling that they were being ignored. With a decaying arsenal of nuclear warheads, and a shrinking number of ways of launching them, the Kremlin has a bigger interest in talking about cuts.
So if Russia wants a deal on missile defence, one may be possible. But what if it doesn’t? American officials think the Kremlin’s complaints about the scheme reflected a wish to pick a fight over Western influence in eastern Europe. Contrary to popular myth, the previous administration tried hard (albeit unsuccessfully) to present missile defences as a matter of common interest. Nobody on the Russian side could explain how a handful of interceptor rockets in Poland would hamper a nuclear superpower that can launch weapons from anywhere on the planet.
America is now committed to boosting Poland’s defences. The paradox is that Russia complained loudly about something that did not matter, but by doing so it has got America to do something that does: beef up its security relationship with Poland. This will include more training and equipment (including such sought-after kit as armoured Humvees) as well as high-tech air-defence systems for Warsaw. Even if missile defences are delayed, officials say, these promises will be kept. A big theme for the Obama administration is treating its allies better.
Saturday, January 31, 2009