Obama drops a missile bombshell
By M K Bhadrakumar
With his eight-month presidency seemingly weakening, United States President
Barack Obama struck. A familiar pattern in his political career is repeating.
His decision on Thursday to scrap the plans of his predecessor George W Bush to
build a land-based anti-missile shield in the heart of Europe overlooking
Russia's western borders may appear justifiable, but is nonetheless a stunning
national security reversal.
It was to be a missile defense system of unproven technology, paid for with
money that America could ill-afford to waste, and conceived against a threat
that probably doesn't exist. Still, missile defense is a Republican obsession
that goes back to Ronald Reagan and the "Star Wars" system. The Republicans
shall not flag or fail and they shall go on to the end. They shall fight on the
seas and oceans, in the air, on the beaches and landing grounds, in the fields
and in the streets, in the hills, and
they shall not surrender. They shall attack Obama for blinking in the face of
Obama has opened another front just when his healthcare plan is on the frying
pan and he is barely coping with the war in Afghanistan. Maybe he can make
financial and diplomatic capital out of dropping the missile defense plan. The
anti-missile shield needed to be developed at enormous cost and he can use the
savings elsewhere. The plan was a bone of contention with Russia and he can now
advance nuclear arms-reduction talks with Moscow and even count on the Kremlin
not to cast a veto in the United Nations Security Council on a new round of
sanctions against Iran.
Not only Central Europe and Ukraine and Georgia but also Iran will huddle in
heightened anxiety to ponder the implications of what Obama has done. His
decision rests on the argument that the threat posed by Iran is currently in
the nature of short- and intermediate-range missiles that is best countered
through a reconfigured system of smaller SM-3 missiles based on proven and
cost-effective technologies that can be deployed using the sea-based Aegis
system as early as 2011.
The revised approach envisages that as technologies evolve, the future threats
can be met in a phased manner, while the US currently counters any threat much
sooner than the previous program.
Significantly, Obama concluded with an offer to Moscow. "Now this approach is
also consistent with NATO's [North Atlantic Treaty Organization's] missile
defense efforts and provides opportunities for enhanced international
collaboration going forward," he said. The announcement comes hardly a week
before Obama's scheduled "private" meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitry
Medvedev in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly
Equally, on the eve of Obama's announcement, new NATO secretary general Anders
Fogh Rasmussen called for an "open-minded and unprecedented dialogue" with
Russia to reduce security tensions in Europe and to confront common threats. He
revealed that NATO officials would travel to Moscow to hear the Kremlin's views
on how NATO should develop strategically in the long term.
"We should engage Russia and listen to Russian positions," he said. He
underscored the need for an "open and frank conversation [with Moscow] that
creates a new atmosphere" that would lead to a "true strategic partnership" in
which the alliance and Russia collaborated on issues such as Afghanistan,
terrorism and piracy.
Rasmussen concluded, "Russia should realize that NATO is here and that NATO is
a framework for our trans-Atlantic relationship. But we should also take into
account that Russia has legitimate security concerns." He offered that NATO was
prepared to discuss Medvedev's proposal for a new security architecture in
Europe. Rasmussen had just visited Washington.
The Russian Foreign Ministry lost no time in responding to Obama's announcement
on missile defense. "Such a development would be in line with the interests of
our relations with the United States," a spokesman said. He subsequently
refuted suggestions of any quid pro quo behind the US decision. He said
any sort of grand bargain with the US was "not consistent with our [Russian]
policy nor our approach to solving problems with any nations, no matter how
sensitive or complex they are".
However, the fact remains that Obama's decision, while significantly boosting
US relations with Russia, also puts pressure on the Kremlin. The "Iran Six"
process  over Iran's nuclear program enters a new phase on October 1. The
big question is whether Moscow would actually veto a UN Security Council
resolution if push came to shove. The crunch comes just a week after the
Obama-Medvedev meet when the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
William Burns comes face-to-face with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed
True, the last exposition of the Russian position given by Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov a week ago was unequivocal. He made it clear Moscow wouldn't
block any new rounds of tough sanctions against Iran and he dismissed a US
timetable for securing progress from Iran as regards ending its
Lavrov said, "I do not think these sanctions will be approved by the United
Nations Security Council ... They [Iran] need an equal place in this regional
dialogue. Iran is a partner that has never harmed Russia in any way." Lavrov
added that even an expected US move to drop plans to station a missile-defense
system in Eastern Europe wouldn't be seen as a concession to Russia, as,
according to him, such a move would merely correct a previous US mistake.
But then, a week is a long time in politics. Four days after Lavrov spoke - and
two days before Obama spoke - Medvedev said. "Sanctions are not very effective
on the whole, but sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and it is the right
thing to do." The West's Russia hands promptly perceived a "subtle shift" in
the Kremlin's position, whereas the US-Russia differences over Iran are far too
deep and fundamental to be easily sidestepped.
Obama's decision will stimulate thinking in the multipolar world within the
Kremlin. As a top scholar on NATO at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic
Academy, Vladimir Shtol, pointed out gently, any US rethink of the missile
defense system would probably be the result of economic pressures connected
with the global crisis, and not a political deal with Russia. "I don't believe
the US would ever fully back out of the missile shield, because it is in their
long-term interests and closely connected with their strategy in Europe," Shtol
The realists in Moscow will note that even as Obama spoke in Washington, Dennis
Blair, America's intelligence boss, was releasing the latest National
Intelligence Strategy report of the US, which is compiled every four years. The
report specifically warned that Russia "may continue to seek avenues for
reasserting power and influence that complicates US interests".
On Tuesday, Russia signed defense agreements with Georgia's breakaway regions
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, allowing Moscow to maintain military bases there
for the next half-century. The Russian military headquarters in Abkhazia will
be in the Black Sea port of Gudauta, which ensures that even if the pro-US
regime in Kiev forces the closure of Sevastopol, Moscow will thwart US attempts
to turn the Black Sea into a "NATO lake".
Put in perspective, therefore, Moscow will carefully weigh Obama's "overture".
The litmus test will be the US's willingness to abandon NATO expansion. The
eastern European countries' integration into Western Euro-Atlantic structures
was contrary to the understanding held out to former Russian president Mikhail
Gorbachev. Again, Russia is not the Soviet Union, but cold warriors cannot
grasp this. Moscow's concept of national sovereignty and its claims of special
interests in the post-Soviet space provoke negative feelings in the West.
Moscow sees no reason to settle for the role of a junior partner when it
estimates that the US is a declining power and the locus of world politics is
shifting eastward. Besides, Washington pursues a policy of "selective
engagement, selective containment". Over Afghanistan or Iran, Washington needs
Russian support, while the problem of the post-Soviet space remains acute and
Russia feels excluded from the Euro-Atlantic security arrangements pending,
while a "demilitarization" of relations between Russia and the West remains
The smart thing for Obama will be to cast his decision on missile defense
within a working format of "resetting" ties with Russia rather than as a move
that deserves a quid pro quo over Iran. Moscow will only assess Obama's
decision as a pragmatic step necessitated by the US's economic crisis.
Meanwhile, Russia will cooperate on fresh START (Strategic Arms Reduction
Treaty) talks or help out the US in Afghanistan, which is in its interests too.
1. The "Iran Six" nations are the permanent members of the UN Security Council
- the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China - plus Germany.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.