Russian leaders never liked the idea that the United States, Poland and the Czech Republic were cooperating on missile defense to confront an emerging Iranian threat. The notion that two former Warsaw Pact states that Moscow used to control would be hosting 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a corresponding radar facility in the Czech Republic was unacceptable. Kremlin leaders alleged that the system was meant to target Russia, not counter Iran, and they had threatened to scuttle unrelated arms control negotiations with the United States unless Washington backed down.
With the Obama administration's announcement Thursday that it is indeed abandoning the Polish and Czech sites, Moscow's complaining appears to have worked. Yet the administration's capitulation to Russian pressure is a serious betrayal of loyal allies in Warsaw and Prague whose governments pursued politically unpopular positions at the request of the Bush administration to help confront a rising threat from Iran. (Announcing this policy change on Thursday, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, added unnecessary insult to injury.)
During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama showed little enthusiasm for the missile defense plans of President Bush. After his election, however, Obama appeared to take a firmer position, one closer to his predecessor's thinking. "Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran's neighbors and our allies," he said in Prague on April 5. "The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed."
Whatever the official explanation now for not moving forward, many -- including the Kremlin -- will read this shift as an effort to placate Moscow. Announcing the decision ahead of Obama's meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev next week reinforces such thinking. The Obama administration has prioritized a follow-up to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and dropping the Polish and Czech sites removes a major obstacle to finalizing agreement.
Yes, Washington has an interest in an arms control deal with Moscow, but Russia's need for such a deal is much greater: It cannot afford to maintain its aging nuclear weapons, nor could it compete with the United States in any new arms race. Russia's nuclear arsenal is already within or moving toward the ranges proposed in the latest negotiations regarding both warheads (1,500 to 1,675 per country) and delivery vehicles (500 to 1,100). That should have provided Washington with significant negotiating leverage, but the Obama administration's eagerness for an agreement before START expires Dec. 5 has essentially forfeited that leverage.
The Bush administration repeatedly rejected any link between a post-START accord and the Polish and Czech sites. The Obama administration initially rejected linking the two but made the mistake during Obama's trip to Russia this summer of agreeing to a last-minute joint statement on missile defense issues and to language on the joint understanding regarding a coming arms control pact.
In a July 6 joint news conference with Obama, Medvedev seized on this U.S. acquiescence. "In our mutual understanding that has just been signed, we talk about the linkage between offensive and defensive weapons, and this already constitutes a step forward. Some time ago, on this question, we had all -- only differences. Now this linkage is being stated and this opens up the opportunity of bringing positions closer to each other."
Russia's repeated efforts to link the missile defense sites to an arms control agreement should have made it harder politically for Obama to back down. Ten interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic were never a threat to Russia. Winning Russian help in dealing with Iran as a quid pro quo is also very unlikely. Yet Obama's efforts to placate the Russians come at the expense of U.S. relations with Eastern and Central European governments that are already uneasy about the U.S. commitment to their region. Worse, rewarding bad Russian behavior is likely only to produce more Russian demands on this and other issues.
The administration defends its decision by claiming that Iran is not developing a long-range capability as quickly as was previously thought. The Bush administration, however, had proceeded on the reasoning that Iran would have the capability in four or five years, roughly when the missiles and radar would be fully operational. Announcing this change ahead of an Oct. 1 meeting with Iranian officials also seems particularly unwise.
The Kremlin started a dangerous game of chicken by linking conclusion of a post-START agreement to missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow appears to have prevailed in that contest of wills. The administration should insist on delinking these two separate issues and move forward with the missile defense plans it inherited.
The writer, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor as well as deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in the George W. Bush administration.