Washington rankled some of its European allies and delighted Moscow on September 17 when President Obama cancelled plans to build missile defence bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. The decision makes practical sense - the bases “were to use unproven technology against a threat that does not yet exist,” as Zbigniew Brzezinski put it.
But the decision carries risks, too. Obama will look naïve if Moscow does not reciprocate by co-operating on stopping Iran’s nuclear program. There is also a chance that a triumphant Russia will conclude that with enough bluster and bravado, the US can be threatened into abandoning its NATO allies. Whatever may be the outcome, the Obama decision would mark a watershed in Europe’s relations with the two former Cold War adversaries.
The decision has been long in coming. The Democrats have always suspected George W. Bush of overselling the technical capabilities of missile defence: the former president claimed credit for deploying two bases in the US even though the system has performed poorly in tests. The proposed new third site in Poland was to employ a missile that has yet to be developed or tested (the Czech Republic was to host the radar). "We already have two sites that don't work; do we need a third one that doesn't?" asked one senior US official close to Mr Obama.
Instead, Obama has proposed to put a number of simpler, already proven Navy missiles in and around Europe. These can only intercept short- and medium-range missiles but experts say that Iran will not have intercontinental-range missiles for at least another decade anyway. The new missile defence architecture could actually make Europe more secure against a threat from Iran - this is because the missiles originally planned for Poland were designed to destroy missiles bound for the US, not Europe. But this will be cold comfort to the East Europeans, who worry about Moscow’s reaction.
The White House’s announcement says little about Russia but it lurks in the background. Obama will hope that Moscow’s delight at the cancellation of the much-loathed bases will translate into closer US-Russian co-operation on stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Not coincidentally, the US cancelled the Polish and Czech bases only a week before a crucial UN meeting on Iran.
Obama’s new approach will not be tested for a few more months. For now, the US and Russia pursue similar policies on Iran. President Obama last week accepted Iran’s offer of wide-ranging negotiations. These, the White House says, will be allowed to run at least until the end of the year before the US decides whether Iran is serious about stopping its nuclear program or whether it is merely buying time to build nuclear weapons. There is a small chance that Israel may upset the schedule by striking at Iran’s nuclear facilities first but it would take a major new advance in Iran’s nuclear program for Israel to risk openly undermining the US-preferred approach.
The trouble for Washington may come if and when the US determines that Iran is not serious about nuclear talks. That would prompt the US to seek new UN Security Council sanctions and Obama, having offered to “reset” relations with Russia and cancelled the bases in Eastern Europe, would hope for Russia’s support. But Moscow has sent mixed messages at best on whether it will play along.
This week, President Dmitry Medvedev said vaguely that sanctions “may be necessary in some situations”. But Russia also sold Iran its latest anti-aircraft missiles, which will make it more dangerous for Israeli or American pilots to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities should all other options fail. US officials are unimpressed. “The Russians are gaming us”, said one senior State Department diplomat. “They create problems and want us to thank them for making them go away.”
Should Russia not “reward” the US decision to cancel missile defence bases with greater co-operation on Iran, expect the East Europeans to be irked. The previous Czech and Polish governments put much political capital into selling missile defences to their reluctant publics; a whole generation of politicians now feels let down by Washington.
The official reaction from the Czech and Polish capitals has been relatively muted. This is because the Poles in particular have been quietly “resetting” relations with Russia themselves in recent months; they have also long ago begun to distance themselves from the US and repair ties with the rest of the EU.
Whereas the Polish government of the early 2000s built its security policy around close links to Washington, the new administration, which came to power in 2007, thought Poland’s reliance on a single ally too risky, especially because the George Bush era was so evidently drawing to a close. The incoming Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski knew better than most East Europeans that US foreign policy can be fickle: he spent years in Washington as foreign policy pundit. So Poland set out to rebuild ties with Russia and the rest of Europe. Sikorski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk travelled to Moscow on several occasions; they recently hosted Vladimir Putin in Gdansk at ceremonies commemorating the outbreak of World War II. A senior Polish government official described the country’s policy as one of “getting rid of our image as the Russophobes of Europe”.
In doing so, the Poles hope to convince the rest of Europe that Poland can be a constructive ally; the idea is to encourage countries like Germany to pursue a joint EU approach to Russia, instead of bypassing the EU (and, by extension, Poland). Warsaw’s efforts have already paid off in modest ways: the Germans and the Poles are jointly leading EU efforts to prevent a Russo-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea. A co-operation between German and Warsaw on an issue as sensitive as Ukraine would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Because the Polish leadership has been hedging against cancellation of missile defences for years, they will not view Obama’s decision as a calamity. But they will be concerned anyway. Their predecessors and George Bush have made missile defence into the yardstick by which to measure US commitment to Eastern Europe. The US, Eastern Europe, and Russia have understood it in those terms. Obama cannot remove bases from Eastern Europe now without risking sending a wrong signal to Russia. There is a real possibility that Moscow will misread the change as a carte blanche to assert its might in Eastern Europe. Moscow has opposed the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic primarily because it views Eastern Europe as a part of its natural sphere of interest. Now that the US has backed away from them, Moscow will assume that with sufficient pressure, the US can be bludgeoned into abandoning allies.
This is almost certainly not what Obama has in mind; he has warned Russia repeatedly against carving out “zones of influence” in Eastern Europe. In April, Barack Obama came out in support of NATO resuming its contingency planning for a possible conflict with Russia (against opposition from Germany, France and other traditionally Moscow-leaning countries). More gestures of similar sort are needed. If NATO planners find that the alliance needs to reinforce bases in Eastern Europe, Washington ought to champion the idea (which is certain to be unpopular in Berlin or Paris). It should also press for military exercises in Eastern Europe, of the sort that Norway holds regularly with NATO allies to rehearse its defence against a possible Russian aggression.
Naturally, these steps should go hand-in-hand with attempts to engage Moscow, as Washington and Warsaw have been trying recently. But the US should take the lead in drafting contingency plans for Eastern Europe nevertheless - to provide a backup in case engagement fails, and to signal to Russia that the US remains committed to the region, even after abandoning the Polish and Czech sites.