This week U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Moscow, but their arrival was not accompanied by any breakthroughs on U.S.-Russian differences on missile defense, arms control, and Kosovar independence. Still, both sides reported “good progress.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called new U.S. proposals on missile defense (MD) “important and helpful,” adding that they alleviate Russian concerns about the deployment of an MD radar in the Czech Republic and ten MD interceptors in Poland, “although Washington is still intent on going ahead with the deployment.” President Vladimir Putin announced that he had received a letter from U.S. President George W. Bush, calling it “A serious document that we have carefully analyzed. If we manage to agree on its main provisions, we will be able to say that our dialogue is progressing successfully” (RIA-Novosti, March 17, 18).
Rice and Gates last visited Moscow in October within the framework of the “2+2 talks” with their Russia counterparts, Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. That encounter ended in acrimony, when Putin issued a series of ultimatums and threatened reprisals if Washington would not abandon its MD plans (see EDM, October 18, 2007). Now in the absence of any concrete progress on MD, Kosova, or anything, both sides publicly played ball. While Rice and Gates met with Russian opposition figures, the most well-known and outspoken critics of the Kremlin, including former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, were not invited (Interfax, March 18).
In essence, the U.S. compromise proposals on MD do not seem to have changed much since last October. Gates stressed once again that the U.S. MD plan is aimed not at Russia, but Iran. Aboard his jet en route to Moscow Gates told reporters that the Bush administration was willing to guarantee that neither the radar proposed for the Czech Republic nor the ten missile interceptors proposed for Poland would be turned on until Iran had developed a long-range missile. “We were prepared not to operationalize the sites until we had had flight testing from Iran that showed a capability to threaten Europe,” said Gates (U.S. Department of State, March 17). Russian officers will be allowed to inspect the MD sites, if the Czechs and Poles agree. In exchange, Moscow seems to have abandoned its key demand that MD deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic be postponed indefinitely.
For the last year the MD issue was clearly the most contentious in U.S.-Russian relations. Washington’s attempts to explain that the MD deployment is not aimed at Russia were ignored. Now suddenly a compromise seems to be in reach. This sudden change of heart may indicate a serious change in Russian foreign policy priorities.
The Polish and Czech governments have more or less agreed to allow the U.S. MD deployment to go ahead, so the uncompromising stance by Moscow seemed impotent. Moscow’s position was further weakened last month when Iran tested a missile capable of launching a satellite into space and announced it was building a space launch center. The Russia Foreign Ministry expressed its concern and specifically scolded Iran for “attempting to create a ballistic missile with a range of over 4,000 kilometers” (RIA-Novosti, February 6). Moscow had argued before that the Iranian missile threat was an illusion. The MD system in Poland and the Czech Republic is planned to be operational after 2012. If by then the Iranians have already tested a long-range missile, the exact protocol of how to “operationalize” the U.S. MD bases would be irrelevant.
During a recent visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin publicly lambasted NATO plans to admit Georgia and Ukraine, while the U.S. MD issue was not mentioned (see EDM, March 13). Moscow is clearly irked by the possibility that next month, during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, Georgia and Ukraine may be invited to begin work on joining the Alliance. Under these circumstances, NATO expansion has surely eclipsed the deceptive MD issue. A radar in the Czech Republic and ten interceptors in Poland could not possibly threaten Russia or undermine its strategic nuclear deterrent in any way. It is now clear that the entire MD issue was a Kremlin propaganda ploy to mobilize anti-Western public opinion inside Russia during the presidential and Duma elections. With those over, the issue has been abandoned without remorse.
NATO expansion is a genuine, not imaginary, threat. It will end forever Kremlin dreams to dominate the post-Soviet space to rebuild a new Russian empire. Russian authorities have been deadly specific about their response. The Russian Duma has threatened to begin recognition of the breakaway Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, if Georgia joins NATO. Putin has publicly threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Ukraine if it joins the Alliance. He has also threatened to weaken the NATO security operation in Afghanistan if the Alliance insists on expanding (see EDM, March 13).
During the present transition period in Russia with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev being installed and Putin transforming into a powerful prime minister, the Kremlin does not want needless conflicts with the West on MD or other irrelevant arms-control issues. Lavrov offered to work with NATO on joint MD and to “conclude soon” talks with the Alliance on the transit of military supplies by rail through Russia and Central Asia into Afghanistan (RIA-Novosti, March 18). But Lavrov did not hint what the end result of transit talks could be. NATO’s April summit, which Putin plans to attend, may be decisive.