Is Putin Linking the U.S. Plans for Missile Defense in Europe with the Renewal of the START Treaty?

On May 7, in an interview with the Japanese news agency Kyodo Tsushin, NHK television channel and the newspaper Nihon Keizai (Nikkei) on the eve of his trip to Japan, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin explicitly linked the progress in the negotiations over the renewal of the strategic offensive arms reduction treaty (START) to the agreement on the issue of the missile defense in Europe. When asked specifically about whether Russia intends to link the START renewal with the U.S.-Russian dispute over American plans to deploy missile defense system in Europe, Putin responded:

As far as we understand, the new U.S. administration has not defined its position with regard to the future of the missile defense system at least as it relates to its deployment in Europe. But it is evident that the offensive and defensive parts of strategic forces are closely and indissolubly intertwined with one another. This was always the case and we always proceeded from this assumption. And this is precisely why the anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed in the first place.

When the United States unilaterally abandoned that Treaty and “buried” it, the threat of disparity emerged naturally with regard to the offensive and defensive strategic systems. I think one does not have to be an expert to understand the following: if one side wants to have or intends to have an “umbrella” from all kinds of threats, then it may have an illusion that it can do anything it pleases and then the aggressiveness of its actions will considerably increase while the threat of global confrontation will reach a very dangerous level.

Russia will, of course, link the questions of missile defense and everything that is related to that subject to the issue of strategic offensive arms.

If Putin’s assertion is taken at face value it means that the chances for U.S.-Russian rapprochement appear to be rather slim. This issue goes beyond the mere management of expectations on both sides since at the core of the problem are the conflicting conditionalities that Washington and Moscow attach to their respective negotiating positions. Thus, in exchange for abandoning plans to position the elements of the missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic, Washington wants Moscow to assist with bringing more pressure on Iran to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, while the Kremlin wants Washington to scrap the missile defense plans in exchange for Russian cooperation on the renewal of the START treaty, which expires in December. Thus far the Obama administration skillfully employed the excuse of conducting the comprehensive review of the missile defense policy, which supposedly includes Russian proposals on the use of the radar stations in Russia and Azerbaijan, as a delaying tactic. However, time is running out and considering that the resumption of U.S.-Russian negotiations on START renewal, which are due to begin in Moscow on May 19, is considered to be the centerpiece of Obama administration’s “reset” policy vis-à-vis Russia, Putin’s statement may herald the early demise of the talks. After all, President Dmitry Medvedev already rejected Washington’s quid-pro-quo back in March.