You’re on your own. That was the upshot of the Obama administration’s announcement this week that it was scrapping George W. Bush’s plans to build a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. To be sure, the White House stressed its support for a “redesigned” defensive system that would, it claimed, be cheaper and more effective against the threat of Iranian missiles. But Eastern and Central Europeans weren’t fooled. For them, the White House’s move can be summed up in one word: appeasement.
Staunch allies of America’s since the end of the Cold War, these former communist nations were clearly disappointed when the Obama administration cancelled the anti-missile shield. The news hit particularly hard in Poland, not least because, in a case of astonishingly poor timing, the administration declared its intentions to cancel the missile shield on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939.
The shelved system’s stated purpose was to safeguard Europe and the eastern coast of the United States from long-range missile attack from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea. As part of a worldwide American anti-nuclear defense network, Poland was to receive ten anti-missile rockets and the Czech Republic a radar station. The planned system would have integrated both countries into a security network with the United States, a development that has become more important as the fledgling democracies have become more concerned about their security in the face of renewed Russian aggression.
Former Solidarity leader and Poland’s first post-communist president, Lech Walensa, did not hide his disappointment at the administration’s decision. “The Americans have always only concerned themselves with their own interests and exploited everyone else,” Walensa bitterly observed, adding that Poles must now re-examine their view of America and think more of their own interests.
But while there was gloom in Warsaw, there was jubilation in Moscow. Russia had strongly opposed the installation of the anti-missile system and has now emerged as the big winner. The Kremlin alleged that the missile shield was a threat to its own security. At one point, Russia even provocatively threatened to install short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian territory next to Poland, if the interceptors were installed.
Russia believes that such firmness caused the Obama administration’s about-face. Indeed, Russian officials triumphantly hailed their own intransigence yesterday, pointing to “Russia’s uncompromising position on this question” as the reason for the American decision. Thus, one consequence of the Obama administration’s retreat on missile defense is likely to be a hardening of Russia’s foreign-policy line.
That is roughly the opposite of the reaction that the Obama administration was seeking. Its decision to scrap the missile defense program in Eastern Europe was motivated at least in part by the belief that such concessions would help “reset” strained diplomatic ties with Russia – especially since the latter had been agitated in its opposition to the missile defense program.
Yet Russian fears regarding the Bush plan, as former US secretary of State Condoleeza Rice pointed out, were always exaggerated. “The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten” Russia is “purely ludicrous,” Rice noted in 2007.
Russian opposition was also glaringly hypocritical. North Korea, led by an unbalanced leader who starves his own people, exploded a nuclear bomb this May only 300 kilometers from Vladivostok, a city on Russia’s Pacific coast, without informing the Kremlin beforehand. According to one Russian columnist, debris from North Korean missile tests also falls on Russian territory. But these dangers occur without much protest or anger from the Russian government
The most hypocritical aspect of the Russian opposition is that the Kremlin is helping Iran build the nuclear reactor that is suspected of producing the enriched uranium for the Iranian nuclear weapons program – the reason that the missile defense shield was conceived in the first place. Besides helping Iran build a nuclear reactor, up until now Russia has vetoed or softened all American-proposed sanctions against Iran in the UN’s Security Council. Russia also stands accused of accepting an order to provide Iran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that can protect its nuclear installations, although it is uncertain whether they have been delivered.
If the administration hoped that appeasing Russia on missile defense would win Russian cooperation against Iran, it badly miscalculated: Russian officials announced yesterday that they would not reconsider their opposition to new and tougher sanctions against Tehran. Russia may rue the day Iran acquires nuclear missiles. But for now, the Kremlin is enjoying the instability Iran’s nuclear program is causing, which inflates the oil prices on which the Russian economy depends.
Perhaps the main reason that Russia does not want a defensive system installed in Eastern Europe is that it still thinks of it as its domain. A missile defense shield stood in the way of Russian plans to intimidate its former satellites with its own nuclear weapons, which the interceptors can also stop. It already has a track record for doing so. The Soviet Union, for instance, installed SS 20 nuclear rockets in Eastern Europe in the early 1980s to intimidate Western Europe. They were removed only after President Reagan installed Pershing missiles as a counter-measure.
On the basis of that acutely-remembered history, Poland and the Czech Republic, seeking freedom from such Russian nuclear blackmail, accepted Bush’s interceptor system. Russia’s invasion of Georgia preceded the deal’s signing by a week, giving it an added urgency. Other acts of Russian aggression, like the cyber attack against Estonia and cutting the gas supply to Ukraine also factored into their decision. Now they have been betrayed by their U.S. ally.
For its part, the Obama administration says that it has bigger successes in mind. The White House claims that its redesigned program, featuring sea and land-based missile interceptors, will offer “more effective defenses against more near-term ballistic missile threats” from Iran. But many military analysts disagree. They point out that these land and sea-based missile defenses, underfunded by succeeding administrations, are in no way comparable to the now-scrapped missile defense shield. Terminating the European missile defense system could actually be a major step back for international security.
As a strategic move and security measure, the administration’s abandonment of the European missile defense program seems to be a dangerous miscalculation. However, it was not entirely unforeseen. Last July, Polish President Lech Kaczynski asked Obama to be firm with Russia about the interceptors. “Concessions on this question would invite disastrous results and undermine the credibility of the United States in Central and Eastern Europe,” he warned.
President Obama did not get the message. Worryingly, Russia and Iran may have understood it all too well.