international analysis and commentary

Shelving the Bush missile shield: Russian success and American hope

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The Obama decision to shelve the missile shield in Eastern Europe represents a significant shift in US security and foreign policy. The main motives lie in relations with Russia, but the move will not necessarily have a significant impact on Russia’s position on Iran, other dossiers on the international agenda, nor efforts to counter nuclear proliferations.

Washington is now officially committed to a system designed specifically to intercept short and medium-range missiles of the kind Iran is stockpiling.

The US administration stated that its U-turn on missile defense is motivated by the project’s review ordered by the President in January 2009. The scientific and military community had long been concerned about the effectiveness of a new and complex anti-missile technology, which for instance a study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies considers “not yet mature”. As Obama underlined, the present technologies seem to be more cost-effective, and in times of tight budgets this argument obviously carries significant weight. Finally, Iran has apparently shifted its efforts from long-range rockets to short range ones, which makes the new plan better suited.

These are serious rationales, but strategic decisions always result from a mix of military, strictly technical and widely political considerations. For example, the space-based anti-missile system envisaged by the Reagan administration in the 1980s suffered from significant technological and budgetary flaws, yet the administration attached more importance to the political rationale of overstretching the Soviet Union in an arms race that Moscow could not sustain.

In the current phase, the new administration made immediately clear – even before Obama’s inauguration – its goal of pushing the “reset button” in relations with Russia. The first pragmatic test was the Moscow bilateral summit in July, which set the guidelines for a renewed nuclear arms control agreement between the two sides. On that occasion, the most divisive issue proved to be exactly the American missile shield project.

Whatever the official policy, Washington made a de facto crucial concession to Moscow, implicitly looking for something in exchange regarding the Iran dossier. So far, Russia still has to return the favor. Russian Prime Minister Putin welcomed the move as “correct and brave”, and President Medvedev declared that there are now “good conditions” for US-Russia talks on missile proliferation. He also went as far as to state, in reference to Iran, that “sanctions sometimes are inevitable”, but also added that “we need to help Iran to make the right decisions”.

The jury is still out on Russia’s active cooperation on the Iran question. In the meantime, Obama’s decision will likely contribute to the success of the bilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control which are expected to result in a new legally binding treaty by December.

In broader terms, however, a fundamental problem remains: as Chatham House’s Director Robin Niblett has recently argued, the Russian leadership perceives the world in a “zero-sum” framework, where a weaker US means a stronger Russia. Thus, the risk is that Moscow may be tempted to cash in on Obama’s concession and just move on – just as conservative critics at home have commented. In this context, there is little practical value also in the recent UN declaration on nuclear proliferation, given the poor state of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In short, the impression is that Washington is making a series of opening moves while lacking a game plan for the time when the going will get tough. Smart public diplomacy is fine, but it will not be easy to activate operational linkages between concessions and practical results. In addition, such public diplomacy may not necessarily be perceived as a manifestation of “smart power” by close allies like Poland and the Czech Republic, which seem to be frustrated by the American U-turn and anxious over US commitments when bilateral relations with Moscow are at stake. 

A key question therefore, is whether Russia is actually interested in going beyond a general improvement in the “atmospherics” with the Obama administration to become an active partner; for example envisaging a network of anti-missile defense systems against Iran – in parallel with what promises to be a prolonged debate on additional sanctions. On one hand, Tehran does not constitute a security threat for Russia, which has always considered the Islamic Republic as a good buyer of military and nuclear goods and a useful counterweight to US influence in Central Asia. Therefore, Moscow has no direct interest in countering Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, the international stalemate on the Iranian dossier increases Moscow’s diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis the US – precisely as suggested by the missile defense decision in Eastern Europe. Consequently, the Kremlin has an indirect interest in negotiations that drag on indefinitely. On the other hand, full participation in a new pan-European defense architecture on an equal footing with the US might be tempting for a Russian leadership which attaches major importance to great power status. All things considered, it is likely that concrete interests will prevail over the “status” rationale: Russia will probably remain a wait-and-see player rather than an active partner in the Iranian game. 

At the end of the day, American public diplomacy and unilateral concessions might or might not lead to more cooperation between Washington and Moscow on arms control, nuclear proliferation and the Iran dossier. But time is on Russia’s side: having long advocated a shift toward a substantive dialogue with foes and problematic partners, the viability of Obama’s policy of engagement now demands some short-term practical results. In contrast, Russia’s hard-line policy appears to have already delivered.