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Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe: Furthering U.S. Security, or Angering Allies?
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By Elizabeth Zolotukhina On September 17, 2009 - the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 that marked the beginning of World War II in Europe - the Obama administration announced its intention to shelve plans for U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) developed under former President George W. Bush. Citing a new intelligence assessment, President Obama argued that his predecessor’s plan to deploy an X-band radar station outside of Prague, Czech Republic and 10 two-stage interceptor missiles in Poland would not adequately protect America and its European allies from the Iranian threat and reiterated his opposition to utilizing unproven technology in any European ballistic missile defense architecture. Based partly on the intelligence assessment, which suggests a sharper threat from Iranian short-range missiles rather than from a future intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability (Iran does not yet have such a capability), the President unveiled a revised BMD deployment strategy. This plan would use smaller, mobile SM-3 interceptors to counter short- and medium-range missiles, based first aboard Aegis-equipped ships and possibly later on land in Eastern Europe. Although issues of cost and effectiveness cloud this proposal , recently, the U.S. Senate unanimously adopted an amendment to the fiscal year (FY) 2010 Military Construction Appropriations bill allowing the Pentagon to use $68.5 million in unspent FY 2009 missile defense funds to build a Hawaii test facility for the Navy's Aegis Weapons System, which is central to realizing the administration’s revised BMD deployment strategy. In early February, Romania and Bulgaria announced their respective decisions to consider hosting elements of the U.S. BMD architecture. Traian Basescu, the Romanian president, committed Bucharest to accepting SM-3 interceptors developed for the US Navy with the Aegis system, or land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors which could be operational by 2015. Shortly thereafter, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov stated that Sofia is ready to begin negotiations with Washington about possibly accepting similar sites on its territory. The decision, which has been characterized as “one of the biggest national security reversals of his young presidency” , received praise by some observers while fueling discontent among others. Many Republicans derided the move for appeasing Russia and Iran at the expense of America’s European allies, while some Democrats were displeased because the administration had not scuttled the European BMD plans entirely. Meanwhile, some Czech and Polish leaders – who had probably anticipated the decision even if they were not informed of the precise details or timing of the public announcement until shortly before media leaks forced the president to deliver a hasty speech on the topic - reacted to the administration’s decision with “deep dismay” fearing that Washington had succumbed to Russian pressure and Atlanticist politicians in Prague felt “humiliated.” In addition, former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government cooperated closely on the BMD issue with the former Bush administration despite domestic opposition to the proposal, issued a statement in which he raised questions about “whether the United States is stepping back from the region of Central and Eastern Europe in exchange for better relations with Russia.” That sentiment was also expressed in the letter of concern written by many former East European leaders to the Obama administration. The public response of the Polish government has been more measured. Unlike the Czechs who had adopted a more compromising negotiating position, the accord Warsaw signed in August 2008 with the outgoing Bush administration pledged to deploy a Patriot battery operated by 100 U.S. service members – an extra source of some controversy among Polish citizens – to augment the country’s air defense capabilities. This arrangement was in addition to the 10 two-stage interceptor missiles that comprised Poland’s share of the BMD architecture under the Bush plan. While Poland has reluctantly agreed to host SM-3 missiles , which are a part of the Obama administration’s revised BMD deployment plan, Warsaw would like to see Washington abide by its promise to deploy a Patriot battery on Polish soil. The U.S.-financed move, which would be viewed as a symbol of NATO’s commitment to the country’s defense and fully integrated with Poland’s air-defense system, elicits concern from American officials who say that “there is still plenty to discuss” in this regard. Nevertheless, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich recently announced that an undisclosed number of American missiles would be deployed on Polish soil by March or April of this year, just 35 miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. While the missiles’ proximity to Russia could be viewed as provocative, Moscow has denied reports that it plans to augment the arsenal of its Baltic Fleet in response to Warsaw’s move. President Obama has at various times denied that the reversal of the European BMD policy was an attempt to appease Russia, which has strongly objected to the plan on the grounds that it would threaten its own nuclear arsenal. Nonetheless, many governments in the region have interpreted the change as an attempt to elicit Moscow’s cooperation in imposing additional sanctions on Iran for non-compliance with various United Nations National Security Council (UNSC) resolutions related to Tehran’s nuclear program, or a signal of American withdrawal from East/Central Europe. In an attempt to counter these perceptions, the administration dispatched Vice President Joseph Biden to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania approximately one month after the decision was announced. In the Czech Republic, Vice President Biden reassured the assembled leaders that the Obama administration would “exert influence where possible” to ensure that Prague - which currently receives the vast majority of its oil and natural gas supplies from Russia - does not become even more dependent on Moscow. In return, interim Prime Minister Jan Fischer reiterated Czech support for the new American missile defense plan under NATO auspices and for the Alliance’s missions abroad. As planned, shortly after Biden’s visit, high-level Czech and American defense officials gathered in Prague to consider the role that the country would play in the revised missile defense architecture. Following the consultations, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Alexander Vershbow told the media that Washington had "[presented] ... some concrete ideas to begin that process of developing the Czech role in the new approach," and added that part of the Czech Republic's role could be the hosting of "potential facilities here on the territory of the [country]." Biden also received a relatively warm reception in Poland. Moscow’s initial reaction to the news of Obama’s decision had been mixed. Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed the move using cautious language, other high-ranking officials, such as Dmitri Rogozin, Moscow’s envoy to NATO, has termed the policy shift “a mistake that is now being corrected,” and characterized it as a response to an agreement allowing the transit of American military supplies and personnel through Russian and Central Asian territories to Afghanistan. Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, said that he expected additional concessions from the United States, while General Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian general staff, noted that the BMD plans “had only been modified not scrapped.” Following the involvement of Romania and Bulgaria in U.S. BMD plans, Moscow again re-stated its long-standing objection to the undertaking: namely that the project could pose a risk to Russian security. Although Russian and other analysts agree that the SM-3 interceptors planned for Romania do not present a threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, since they target medium-range missiles which Moscow has eliminated under the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Moscow continues to voice displeasure at the development and has indicated that it could jeopardize planned post-START negotiations which would aim to achieve drastic cuts in American and Russian nuclear arsenals. However, Russian officials more plausibly could be concerned about the planned introduction in 2018 of a second generation of interceptors, because the United States is under no obligation to share data stemming from the system. More broadly, since the inception of the BMD initiative under former President George W. Bush, Russian officials have attempted to limit the possible presence of American troops and military hardware in what they consider their sphere of influence, through counter-proposals such as the offer made by then-President Vladimir Putin to allow the U.S. access to the Russian radar base at Gabala, Azerbaijan. Although Bush welcomed the gesture as a positive sign of Russian cooperation on the BMD issue, little action materialized. The Obama administration has also remained noncommittal about running a possible joint Russian-US BMD site in the Caucasus. There has been no noticeable change in Russia’s policies toward Iran, NATO, or any other security issue since the policy shift; the post-START agreement remains un-ratified. Overall, it is likely that Moscow expects additional concessions from Washington on the BMD issue if its cooperation is sought in other areas. Elizabeth Zolotukhina is Head Editor of the Project on National Security Reform Case Studies Working Group. Her past affiliations include the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute and the Lexington Institute. Ms. Zolotukhina received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include nonproliferation, arms control, and Russia. Her articles have appeared in the World Politics Review, the International Affairs Forum, and the Journal of Strategic Security, among others.

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