DRESDEN, Germany | President Obama’s decision to scrap a land-based missile-defense system has sent expectations soaring among U.S. allies in Europe of some sort of thaw in Russia’s often chilly ties with the West.
Some such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke in general terms about a new era of cooperation with Russia. Others such as NATO’s new secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, spoke of possible integration of Russian and NATO technology.
“We should explore the potential for linking the U.S., NATO and Russia missile-defense systems at an appropriate time,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “Both NATO and Russia have a wealth of experience in missile defense. We should now work to combine this experience to our mutual benefit.”
There was praise from Russia as well, as if the new American president had acquiesced to a long-sought demand by Moscow.
That left it to Mr. Obama himself to dampen expectations Sunday while appearing on the television talk show circuit.
“My task here was not to negotiate with the Russians,” Mr. Obama told CBS News. “The Russians don’t make determinations about what our defense posture is.”
Since the U.S. announcement on Thursday, speculation gripped Europe over Mr. Obama’s decision to replace a land-based anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic aimed at long-range rockets with one initially based at sea and targeted at short-range missiles.
Europeans were hopeful that Russia would respond by supporting tougher sanctions against Iran and will not take advantage of the move to flex its influence in Eastern Europe.
So far, however, there is no little evidence of a seismic shift in relations between Washington and Moscow. Moscow did announce Saturday that it will not station short-range missiles near Poland — a deployment that Russia had threatened if the U.S. went ahead with a land-based missile defense plan.
President Dmitry Medvedev chose to be positive and straightforward, calling Mr. Obama’s decision to abandon sites in Poland and the Czech Republic a “responsible move.”
“Iran must cooperate with IAEA, that’s for sure, if they want to develop their nuclear energy program. It is their duty, not a choice. Otherwise, indeed, the question will be asked always, what are they up to after all? That’s very clear,” Mr Medvedev told CNN.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the U.S. plan a “right and brave decision.” But instead of offering a hint of what Russia might do to reciprocate, as his Western counterparts expected, he demanded more such actions from Washington.
To make sure there was no misunderstanding, he cited specific concessions he wants from the Obama administration: lifting U.S. restrictions on transfers of sensitive technology to Russia and U.S. support for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) not only for Russia, which the George W. Bush administration backed, but also for former Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried again to convince doubters of Mr. Obama’s motivation that they are misguided. “This decision was not about Russia. It was about Iran, and the threat that its ballistic missile program poses,” she said Friday at the Brookings Institution.
National security adviser James L. Jones told The Washington Times on Saturday that the decision was driven by U.S. intelligence concerns over Iran’s rapid development of short-range missiles. Mr. Jones did, however, concede the possibility of “an ancillary benefit” in overall U.S.-Russia relations.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said: “At most, I think the shelving of the Bush [plan] in Europe will remove an irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship and allow the two sides to focus on areas of common concern and interest.”
However, Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that, “while the decision is not mainly about Russia, to say it has nothing to do with Russia is simply disingenuous.”
“If Russia does not come on board on Iran,” he said in reference to tougher U.N. sanctions sought against Tehran for refusing to come clean on its nuclear program, “then essentially it means the ‘reset’ is over.”
The Obama administration has said repeatedly that it wants to reset the U.S.-Russia relationship after serious tensions during the Bush administration.
“Russian intransigence on Iran will turn Congress, rightly or wrongly, totally against arms-control deals and WTO deals with them, and I hope they have no illusions about that,” Mr. Kuchins said.
“I don’t think the Kremlin is as unabashedly pleased about this so-called ‘concession’ as conventional wisdom holds, nor that their default response is simply to pocket the concession and not at least try to create impression of some quid pro quo on Iran,” he said.
Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, said the debate about whether Mr. Obama “caved in” to the Russians “will unfortunately be caught up in a lot of other political wrangling.”
“However that unfolds in Washington over the coming months - and much will depend on Russia’s response to this move - there ought to be an energized debate in Europe about its ability to produce a viable defense strategy against threats,” he said.
So far, the only thing Moscow has indicated it would do differently because of Mr. Obama’s decision is not to base short-range missiles along its western border, close to Poland and the Czech Republic.
Russia vehemently opposed Mr. Bush’s plan despite assurances from Washington - and from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was appointed by Mr. Bush - that the proposed shield and interceptors were not aimed at Russia. Moscow was convinced that the Iran threat was a pretext that would have allowed the U.S. to attack Russia and countered any Russian response.
Mr. Kuchins said that, apart from the debate about Russia, “there is significant positive political payoff with countries like Turkey and the Middle East states, which have become significantly concerned about Iran and will be pleased to see we are taking serious measures that benefit their security - and this is not just Israel.”
“That may well undercut some of Moscow’s aspirations to be more significant player in the Middle East,” he said.