Schwarzenberg "happy" if Russia became involved in missile defence

Karel Schwarzenberg

The Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has said he would welcome Russia’s involvement in the U.S. missile defence shield, part of which could be based in the Czech Republic if the Obama administration proceeds with the plan. That of course is still open to question, with signals coming from Washington that the new president intends to “review” the plan, which is deeply opposed by Russia.

Karel Schwarzenberg’s comments appear to signal a subtle shift in Czech policy on missile defence, one that reflects the new reality in Washington. Mr Schwarzenberg was speaking to Czech reporters after a meeting of a NATO council in Brussels, and was asked to respond to comments made by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said on Tuesday that Russia needed to be involved in the missile defence shield.

Mr Schwarzenberg replied with the words - “if Russia became involved in a meaningful way in missile defence, instead of wanting to oppose it, I would be happy.” Up until now, Czech officials have only made vague noises about letting Russian observers monitor the proposed radar base – to prove that it’s not, as many in the Russian military believe – aimed at Russia.

President Obama has been in the White House for literally less than 24 hours, and it’s obviously too soon to say what he will do with missile defence. There are certainly no indications he will scrap it; after opposing the system early on in the campaign (“I will not weaponise space”), he later said he would support it if it becomes cost-effective and proven to work. At the moment it costs around 10 billion dollars a year, and whether it has been “proven to work” is very much a matter of interpretation.

However, there are real signs the Obama administration will re-evaluate the shield. Last week Michele Flournoy, Obama’s nominee for undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that spending on missile defence would be “reviewed”, later adding that it would be in America’s best interests if Washington and Moscow could agree to cooperate on it.

Here in the Czech Republic, however, the plan is essentially stalled. The government signed two treaties with the Bush administration but they’ve only been ratified in the upper house, the Senate. In the lower house the government doesn’t have a working majority, so would need opposition MPs to cross the floor and support it.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has tried to link the radar base issue with the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, essentially a quid pro quo whereby his party would vote for Lisbon if the opposition Social Democrats vote for the radar base. Indeed, he told the London School of Economics in December that Lisbon was the “victim” of the non-ratified radar treaty.

However, the problem for Mr Topolanek is that the government is under far more pressure to ratify Lisbon, especially as the Czech Republic holds the revolving presidency of EU, than the radar base, which is seen as an unpopular legacy of the Bush administration.