US Drops Europe Missile Defense Plan but Moscow Is Unimpressed

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

US Drops Europe Missile Defense Plan but Moscow Is Unimpressed


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


Russia is officially unimpressed by a unilateral US decision to cancel the final phase of European missile defense a program that Moscow has gone so far in the past as to almost threaten World War III over.

But despite the Kremlin's cool response to the cancellation, experts say that the US decision which eliminates, at a stroke, Moscow's biggest single burning security concern could nonetheless open the door toward improving US-Russian relations.

The decision, announced over the weekend by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, cancels US plans for the fourth and final stage of the European missile defense shield, which would have involved adding SM3-IIB long-range interceptor missiles to the system's mix of short- and-medium range rockets in Poland by 2018.

Russian military officials have explicitly raged against "phase four" because the SM3 rockets would, theoretically, be capable of targeting the intercontinental ballistic missiles that make up the bulk of Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent. The US may also scrap plans to deploy the long-range interceptors to Romania, another site Moscow has vigorously opposed.

Though US officials insist the changes have been made for budgetary reasons, and the need to shift resources to counter a more actual threat from North Korea 14 new interceptors will be deployed in Alaska by 2017 Russian experts say the move could nevertheless be a potential game-changer for the present dismal equation in US- Russia relations. It should certainly end repeated Russian threats to walk out of the New START nuclear arms reduction accord if Moscow's concerns over missile defense aren't heard, they say.

But the initial response from Moscow was a jet of cold water on Monday.

"That is not a concession to Russia, nor do we regard it as such," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a US and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain."

In the US, conservative critics of the Obama administration may smell a rat, and see this move as a fulfillment of Mr. Obama's promise to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, overheard by an open mic at a Seoul security conference a year ago, that he would be able to show the Russians "more flexibility" on missile defense after he was reelected in November.

But Russian conservatives claim they too are suspicious. The current Kremlin view, laid out in a foreign policy manifesto by then- presidential candidate Vladimir Putin early last year is that the US is seeking to attain global military supremacy and that the shifting of a few missiles here or there will not change that picture.

"This is a murky affair," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee.

"It's not yet clear what is being moved to where. But judging by reports, the missiles will be located in Alaska, which means they will be right on top of our borders and could adversely affect our security. It might well strengthen US anti-missile defense and pose new trials for our relations.... So, forgive me if I don't applaud and shout 'hooray.' At least, let's wait for more information," Mr. Klimov says.

But other experts point out that Russia's relations with the US, which are arguably at their post-cold war nadir right now, depend on much more than just a rational assessment of the strategic balance between the two countries. …

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