The Obama administration is failing to seize on a rare strategic chance, presented by Russia’s increasingly aggressive military posturing around Ukraine, to expand the U.S. missile defense footprint in Eastern Europe, says a group of influential Republican lawmakers.
Several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee say the White House should “re-engage” a George W. Bush administration initiative that would have put ground-based missile interceptors in Poland along with corresponding radar in the Czech Republic — effectively establishing permanent U.S. military positions on the border of the former Soviet Union.
While the administration claims it is on track to implement a modified version of the initiative that includes missile defense sites in Romania and Poland, the lawmakers argue that the White House foolishly scrapped the most muscular aspects of the Bush-era plan in 2009 as part of President Obama’s attempt to appease Moscow into embracing his call for a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte, John McCain and Lindsey Graham said Russian President Vladimir Putin was deeply uncomfortable with the Bush-era plan, even though the defense system was intended to deter the threat of missiles from Iran, not Russia. Breathing new life into the initiative, particularly by pursing a “third site” in the Czech Republic, would be an effective way to punish Mr. Putin for his use of military force to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the senators said.
“After Poland and the Czech Republic had demonstrated real courage in standing with the U.S. and ignoring Russian pressure on the third missile defense site, it was a mistake to cancel the missile defense plans in those two countries in a naive attempt to pursue a reset policy of concessions with the Kremlin,” Mrs. Ayotte said.
The New Hampshire Republican told The Washington Times that “in light of Putin’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea and continued threats to the rest of Ukraine, as well as Iran’s continued work on an intercontinental ballistic missile capability, I believe it is more essential than ever to deepen our defense collaboration with our Eastern European NATO allies.”
Polish officials announced last week that they are accelerating plans to finance their own missile shield.
Mr. Graham acknowledged that the Bush-era plan was not focused on intercepting potential missiles from Russia, but he said during a March 2 appearance on CNN that the administration unwisely yielded to Russian pressure and abandoned the plan. “If I were President Obama,” the South Carolina Republican said, “I would re-engage Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense.”
Mr. Obama has ordered the Pentagon to increase the number of American ground forces supporting NATO and to send extra F-15s to Lithuania and F-16s to Poland. The administration says these moves will enhance the rapid military response preparedness of U.S. allies in the region.
But on missile defense, White House officials say they are confident with the plan in place and suggest the Republican outcry is overblown and based on an inaccurate reading of Pentagon tactics during the past five years.
The Bush-era plan was less effective, administration officials argue, than an alternative version the White House began implementing in 2009 under the guidance of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a Bush appointee.
“We haven’t canceled the program that would protect Poland and the Czech Republic,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an email to The Times last week. Alternatively, she said, Mr. Obama revised the Bush-era plan based on “changes in U.S. technology and changes in the threat.”
The Bush plan for a large radar site inside the Czech Republic has been dropped, Ms. Hayden said, but “Poland will still host a missile defense interceptor site” that is “on track and on budget to be operational” by 2018.