NY Times: Obama offers Russia deal on missile defence

Photo: www.army.cz

An article appearing on Tuesday in the New York Times has caused something of a stir in the Czech Republic. Citing US government officials, the paper reported that US President Barack Obama has offered to trade a proposed missile defence system in exchange for Russian assistance in blocking Iran’s nuclear capability. He reportedly did so in a private letter to Russian president Dimitry Medvedev.

Barack Obama with Gordon Brown,  photo: CTK
“Obama is burying the radar” is how one Czech daily on Wednesday described the latest developments: reports that US president Barack Obama may be willing to give up on European missile defence pushed strongly by his predecessor George W. Bush. The proposed system accounts for the stationing of a radar base in the Czech Republic and interceptor rockets in Poland. On Tuesday, Mr Obama, after meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, addressed the claim by saying the defence system hinged largely on the threat posed by Iran. US President Barack Obama on Tuesday:

“What I said in the letter is the same thing that I’ve said publicly, which is that the missile defence that we have talked about deploying is directed towards not Russia but Iran. That has always been the concern: that you had potentially a missile from Iran that threatened either the United States or Europe. And what I said in the letter was that obviously to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons then that reduces the pressure for, or the need for, a missile defence system. In no way does that diminish my commitment to making sure that Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO members are fully enjoying the partnership, the alliance, and US support with respect to their security.”

A little earlier I spoke to Oldřich Bureš, a specialist on Russia and security issues, and asked him what he thought might be the future of the defence shield:

Dimitry Medvedev,  photo: CTK
“In terms of American Russian relations I think the radar will be more of a bargaining chip than under Bush, so if indeed there can be for example progress on Iran - which is presented as one of the key explanations for why we actually need the missiles and the radar - there will probably be a lot of consideration in Washington and in the Pentagon, I would say, as to whether to invest large amounts of money in this quite expensive system, especially given the extent of the financial and economic crisis.”

Mr Obama has never openly committed to missile defence, saying even before he was elected that it would first need to be proven before it was put into operation. After his swearing in, it then became apparent the US president might be willing to drop missile defence in Europe in exchange for an extensive nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia. And now this: proposed cooperation on forestalling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which many, including former politicians like Henry Kissinger, have stressed should not be underestimated. On the other hand, Petr Kratochvíl of Prague’s Institute of International Relations questions how much the planned radar in the Czech Republic and rockets in Poland are – or were - really about Iran at all:

“I think there are more objectives in the American strategy, but obviously the main one - or the one that is perceived as the most important one in the Czech Republic, even though it is not publicly stated – is obviously that the missile defence should protect us from Russia, not from Iran, that I think is obvious. And, again, we can see that even the American administration really couples the issue with the question of US-Russian relations, not with the question of Iran and the threat from Iran, so I think definitely the main reason for the missile defence in Europe is strengthening the American presence here and diminishing the influence of Russia.”

Such a presence would indeed be the last word on which sphere of influence the Czech Republic is in, and would also calm the current Czech government which has invested a great deal of political capital in the project. The Americans however are, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, “pressing the reset button” on US-Russian relations, something Mr Obama may himself address when he gives a key speech in the Czech capital next month.