- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

NICE, France — France’s U.S.-friendly president sent a clear message Friday to the next American administration: Plans for a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe are misguided and won’t make the continent a safer place.

Nicolas Sarkozy also warned Russian President Dmitry Medvedev against upping tensions by deploying missiles on the borders of the European Union in response to the U.S. planned missile defense system. Medvedev urged all sides to refrain from “unilateral” moves.

Sarkozy’s comments, at a summit with Medvedev, were the strongest to date by an American ally against the missile-defense plans — and undercut the rationale behind U.S. President George W. Bush’s European security strategy.

The plans for using sites in Poland and the Czech Republic have infuriated Russia despite the Bush administration’s insistence that they are aimed at protecting Europe from Iran.

“Deployment of a missile defense system would bring nothing to security … it would complicate things, and would make them move backward,” Sarkozy said at a news conference with Medvedev. Medvedev smiled and pointed his finger at Sarkozy in approval.

The remarks came at the end of a week in which the United States and Russia rejected each other’s proposed solutions to the standoff over the missile plans, making it increasingly likely that it will not be resolved before U.S. President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

Obama has not been explicit about his intentions on European missile defense, saying it would be prudent to “explore the possibility” but expressing some skepticism about the technical capability of U.S. missile defenses.

Moscow sees the defense plans as a Cold War-style project that could eliminate Russia’s nuclear deterrent or spy on its military installations. Much of Western Europe is nervous about the idea of such major defensive weaponry stationed around the continent.

But Poland and the Czech Republic, where bad memories of Soviet domination run deep, hope Obama follows through on the plans.

Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra said in a statement he “was surprised” about Sarkozy’s remarks, made at an EU-Russia summit.

“France never consulted with us such a standpoint,” he said. “As far as I know a stance on the missile defense was not part of the French presidency mandate for the EU-Russia summit.” France holds the rotating EU presidency.

Sarkozy said he was worried about Russia’s threat to deploy short-range Iskander missiles near Poland in response to the U.S. move.

“We could continue between Europe and Russia to threaten each other with shields, with missiles, with navies,” he said. “It would do Russia no good, Georgia no good and Europe no good.”

Medvedev suggested deploying missiles in the Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad in a speech hours after Obama’s election. Medvedev and other Kremlin officials later backed off slightly, and earlier this week Medvedev suggested that if Washington halts its plans, Moscow would do the same.

Sarkozy said he would discuss the missile issue with NATO counterparts at a summit early next year and proposed a pan-European security conference after that, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia and the United States are members of the OSCE.

Medvedev welcomed the idea, and suggested Russia would wait to decide on its missile deployment until then.

“We should stay away from any unilateral moves” until the conference is held, he said.

Sarkozy has generally been hawkish on Iran and allied himself more closely with Bush than his predecessor Jacques Chirac. But Sarkozy is also clearly looking ahead to his relations with Bush’s successor.

Friday’s summit marked a key step toward rapprochement between Russia and the European Union: The EU announced the resumption of partnership talks with Russia that had been put on hold because of the war in Georgia.

Critics, including the United States and Georgian governments and human rights groups, say it is too soon to forgive Russia, in effect, when Russian troops remain implanted and unchecked in the two breakaway Georgian provinces at the core of the war.

Sarkozy, temporarily in charge of the 27-nation EU, insisted that the resumption wasn’t “a sign of weakness.”

He and Medvedev remained divided, though, over the continuing presence of Russian troops.

The European Union is Russia’s No. 1 customer and No. 1 investor, and heavily dependent on Russian energy. With the world financial crisis shaking markets in Europe and beyond, officials of the 27-nation EU say reaching out to Moscow is crucial to ensuring stability and to keeping Russia from shutting off its economy to outsiders.

The EU-Russia talks, launched in 2007, aim for an agreement that would increase economic integration, tighten relations on justice and security and boost cooperation in education and science. U.S. diplomats warned European officials that the resumed talks could undermine Western attempts to rein in the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy.

Sarkozy and Medvedev left France for Washington, where they were joining Bush and other world leaders seeking a new financial architecture.

Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Washington, Mike Eckel in Moscow and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

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