Russia offers olive branch on missile defence

Moscow has offered Washington an unexpected olive branch on US missile defence, on Wednesday backing out of plans to deploy short-range missiles in Kaliningrad. The threat that it would do so was made in response to planned US missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, but Russia has apparently suspended the idea in favour of a more constructive dialogue with the US. Prague was quick to welcome the move.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
For months the Russian federation ratcheted up tension over US missile defence – a system counting on the deployment of a radar base in the Czech Republic and interceptor rockets in neighbouring Poland. Russia has long criticised the plans, fearing the system was a threat to its own security. Last November Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Russia would deploy its own short-range missiles in the Baltic territory of Kaliningrad in response. But now, signs of a possible thaw: on Wednesday, sources revealed that Russia had “suspended” its plans in what is being seen as a gesture of goodwill to the new US administration. Prague was quick to welcome Russia’s move; Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg:

“I welcome this change in the Russian position. I hope that Russia has come to understand that its previous stance only hurt it. I am glad Vladimir Putin came to this decision.”

Russia’s apparent change of heart was also commented by the US ambassador to NATO James Appathurai, who told Reuters that the decision was a “good step”. A little earlier I spoke to Martin Shabu, a journalist for the Czech weekly Euro. A specialist in European politics: he says Russia’s move was clearly made in reaction to the stance held by the new US president.

“Barack Obama has been careful when commenting on the future of the defence umbrella. He made clear it needed to work first. We now know that the financial crisis will be Mr Obama’s first priority - one reason why Moscow can slow in its own steps against US missile defence.”

Now, many are wondering what will be the next step. Even prior to Russia’s gesture the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, as well as others such as German chancellor Angela Merkel, indicated they would welcome Russia’s involvement in the project. Euro’s Martin Shabu again:

“In my view Moscow is hoping to move the issue of European security to international organisations such as NATO so that Russia can become something of a partner with Europe and the US on security in the region. Obviously, it is also something of a test also of the new US administration, but I think that the move signifies a new direction from Moscow, removed from earlier rhetoric.”

Many – not least Russia – will now be keen to see how the situation develops, with little doubt the issue of missile defence will be a major one at the upcoming NATO Summit.