Missile strategy must not be seen as a retreat

Missile strategy must not be seen as a retreat

Opinion piece (Financial Times)
Tomas Valasek
09 September 2009

There are mounting indications that Barack Obama will soon abandon plans to put missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. These have become one of the main bones of contention between Russia and the west. The Pentagon is tight-lipped about what, if anything, will replace the sites: US officials have hinted that new bases, built closer to Iran and - crucially - jointly with Russia, could follow. These, under some circumstances, could be more effective than those planned for eastern Europe. But the decision to walk away from original plans will also risk sending a signal to Moscow that the US is leaving eastern Europe to Russia's whims.

The decision has been long in coming. The Democrats have always suspected George W. Bush of overselling the technical capabilities of missile defence: Mr Bush claimed credit for deploying two bases in the US even though the system has performed poorly in tests. The proposed new third site in Poland would employ a missile that has yet to be developed or tested (the Czech Republic was to host the radar). "We already have two sites that don't work; do we need a third one that doesn't?" asked one senior US official close to Mr Obama.

In principle, a less "faith-based" approach to missile defence - one that explores whether sites closer to Iran, or seaborne interceptors, would work better - is welcome. But if Mr Obama mishandles his message to central Europe and Russia, he could damage US prestige and Europe's security.

The first risk to the US is reputational. As part of its missile defence pitch, Washington has been telling Nato allies and Russia that the trajectory of potential Iranian missiles makes Poland the perfect place from which to shoot them down. US generals toured Europe with presentations explaining the physics behind the policy. The Obama administration may be right to want a different site; for example, if the US opts for interceptors which destroy enemy missiles in the first few seconds of flight, these need to be placed closer to Iran. But the president must explain the reasons for the policy shift, or risk accusations that the US lied to its friends.

The second, and greater, risk lies in Russia misreading the change as a carte blanche to assert its might in eastern Europe. Putin's Russia is an über-realist actor, and values military power above other forms of influence. It has opposed the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic primarily because it views eastern Europe as a part of its natural sphere of interest. If Mr Obama backs away from the bases, Moscow will assume that with sufficient pressure, the US can be bludgeoned into abandoning allies.

That is almost certainly not what Obama has in mind. The new US policy can be summed up as: Mr Bush was wrong to allow the Polish and Czech bases to become a yardstick to measure US commitment to the defence of eastern Europe. The bases give Washington no upside. They may not work, and make the US look gratuitously offensive to Russia. There have to be better ways of putting the eastern Europeans' minds at ease.

Irrespective of Mr Obama's intentions, the risk that Russia will misread his actions is real. So the president should find new ways to signal US commitment to the defence of eastern Europe. In April, Mr Obama came out in support of Nato resuming its contingency planning for a possible conflict with Russia (against opposition from Germany, France and other traditionally Moscow-leaning countries). The US could do more. If Nato planners find that the alliance needs to reinforce bases in eastern Europe, Washington ought to champion the idea. It should also press for military exercises in eastern Europe, of the sort that Norway holds regularly with Nato allies to rehearse its defence against a possible Russian aggression.

A nuanced policy to Russia must combine contingency plans with engagement. Mr Obama is right to talk to Moscow about nuclear disarmament; the idea is to wean Russia off its zero-sum view of the world, where gains by the US mean losses for Russia. The Polish government, too, has waged a charm offensive towards Moscow in recent months. But the US should take the lead in drafting contingency plans for eastern Europe nevertheless - to provide a backup in case engagement fails, and to signal to Russia that the US remains committed to the region, even after abandoning the Polish and Czech sites.