Global Policy Forum

Moscow Perplexes US Over Missile Defense in Europe


By Thom Shanker

International Herald Tribune
February 21, 2007

Senior U.S. officials expressed dismay and frustration Wednesday at vitriolic language from Kremlin leaders and a top general in Moscow over Americans plans to base missile defenses in Eastern Europe, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying the proposal was intended to counter the possible development of long-range Iranian missiles and constituted no threat to Russia's vast arsenal.

"I think everybody understands that with a growing Iranian missile threat, which is quite pronounced, that there need to be ways to deal with that problem, and that we're talking about long lead times to be able to have a defensive counter to offensive missile threats," Rice said. The missile defense proposal calls for deploying a few interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic.

Attempting to allay Russian concerns, Rice argued "that there is no way" that the 10 missile interceptors that could be based in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic "are a threat to Russia or that they are somehow going to diminish Russia's deterrent of thousands of warheads." A similar installation has been built in Alaska to protect the United States against the possibility of small-scale attack from Asia.

The debate escalated earlier this week when the Russian missile commander, General Nikolai Solovtsov, issued a direct threat to target Russian weapons on states in Eastern Europe that might cooperate with the American missile defense program. "If the government of Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries make this decision - and I think mutual consultations that have been held and will be held will allow avoiding this - the strategic missile troops will be able to have those facilities as targets," he said. "Consequences in case of hostilities will be very grave for both sides."

Next, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who has prickly relations at best with Rice, was quoted in the Wednesday edition of Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the Russian state newspaper, wholly contradicting the American position. By placing the missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Lavrov said, "We must acknowledge that these objects are fully suitable to intercept missiles fired from Russian territory."

While he urged the United States and Russia to avoid a new arms race, Lavrov also said Russia would deter any new American defensive systems. His colleague, the outgoing Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, said in recent days that Russia easily could overwhelm the American defenses with a far cheaper system of countermeasures, likely to include dummy warheads and blocking materials, known as chaff, to blind or confuse an anti-missile system.

The next senior American official to visit Russia will be President George W. Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, whose previously scheduled travel plans include a stop in Moscow later this week. During a stopover in Brussels on Wednesday en route to Moscow, Hadley said the missile defense system was "an element of a strategy to try and convince Iran that developing this capability is not in its interest." If Iran continues to develop advanced ballistic missiles and succeeds in creating a nuclear warhead, Europe would have "some defense," he added. "This is a reasonable thing to do, it's something Europe ought to be interested in, it's something that Russia ought to be interested in."

Ambassador Victoria Nuland, the U.S. representative to NATO, said that Russia has no cause to express surprise, as representatives from Moscow and the European allies were briefed regularly on the project over the last year. As recently as November, the NATO- Russia council received what she called "a full technical briefing" from Lieutenant General Henry Obering 3rd, director of the Missile Defense Agency, and Eric Edelman, the under secretary of defense for policy. In an effort to further explain the U.S. missile defense program to a European audience, the Bush administration has scheduled a press briefing by Obering for Thursday.

Last month, Obering described the capabilities of the system, and defended it from criticism in Europe, rejecting complaints from Moscow that the system is designed to defense against Russian missiles. The antimissile interceptors, he said, "are geared toward and are directed toward rogue nation capabilities, obviously not sophisticated ballistic missile fleets such as the Russians have." He said the location of the 10 interceptors envisioned for Poland and forward- based radars in the Czech Republic "cannot physically catch the Russian ICBMs even if we were trying to target those missiles" because they are too close to Russian missile silos.

Administration officials have responded in carefully worded statements to the Russian challenges, choosing not to reply in kind to the newest round of verbal attacks from Moscow; the heated dialogue began earlier this month with a caustic speech by President Vladimir Putin, who told an audience in Munich that the United States was provoking a new nuclear arms race and had overstepped its borders in a series of destabilizing, unilateral military actions. In the hours after the speech, senior Bush administration officials attending the security conference in Munich and those back in Washington conferred to determine the proper response. The decision was made that in public officials would push back - but only gently - in order to try and preserve areas of common interest.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rewrote the opening of his speech in Munich, delivered the day after that by Putin, to say that the Russian president's comments brought a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, but that "one cold war was quite enough." In advance of his arrival in Moscow this week, Hadley described the administration's view that "there are a number of areas where Russia and the United States and Europe can cooperate productively, where we have common interests, where we can cooperate and are cooperating." Officials say those areas include counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, Iran and Kosovo.

At the same time, administration officials are expected to keep pressing Putin and his government on a series of actions that include using energy resources as a political tool, cracking down on civil liberties and press freedoms, and pressuring its southern neighbors, in particular Georgia. "I think we have already been reassessing our policy toward Russia, as we have understood at least since January of 2006 or even before that there is a newly self-confident Russia, a Russia that is awash in petrodollars and a Russia that really feels it can say no and pursue its own interests," said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.

Stent, who previously served as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council, said the Bush administration was well aware that Russia was pursuing relations in ways that contradicted American policy, such as negotiating with Syria and with Hamas, and selling arms to Venezuela. But she said that, in particular in the area of counter- terrorism, there was still reason to seek deeper cooperation with Russia.

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