In the two weeks since he was elected president, Barack Obama has
received conflicting signals from Moscow. Aside from a threat to
deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, the Kremlin has made some
conciliatory statements. Whether we see a new chapter in
U.S.-Russian relations will become clear only after Obama and his
foreign policy team are firmly in place after January. Nonetheless,
we can still identify the key points that will determine the nature
of the relationship.
The two main irritants in relations are NATO expansion and plans
to install elements of a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and
the Czech Republic. Following the war in the Caucasus, NATO may
have less enthusiasm for offering Membership Action Plans for
Ukraine and Georgia, but the missile-defense issue will become
either the main obstacle to bilateral relations or the key
opportunity for improving them.
Since the missile-defense program was first proposed, it has
caused a great deal of frustration for both sides. At a U.S.-Russia
summit in Sochi in April, then-President Vladimir Putin and U.S.
President George W. Bush signed a declaration on a strategic
framework for relations between the two countries. After the
summit, the Kremlin concluded that the next U.S. president would
make the final decision about whether the United States would go
forward with its missile-defense system in Central Europe. In other
words, Moscow thought Bush would not force the issue before he left
As we later learned, however, the White House decided it would
be better to sign an agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic
during the Bush’s last remaining months in office to make this
project a part of his legacy. This enraged Moscow, which felt it
had been deceived.
Apart from the emotional aspect, the missile-defense issue also
contains some conceptual contradictions. The problem of a defense
shield is global in nature and therefore requires a coordinated
solution from all leading countries. But the United States has
acted unilaterally on this issue.
Bush justified the U.S. decision to withdraw from the
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it signed with the Soviet Union in
1972 by explaining that Washington needed «freedom and flexibility»
in order to defend itself. The plan to deploy elements of a
missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland was also a
unilateral decision rather than the result of consultations with
its allies or an international recognition of a missile threat from
Iran. The White House simply informed Europe that it needed
protection, and NATO allies gave their consent to the project much
later at the April summit in Bucharest.
The United States continues to argue that the deployment of a
radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in
Poland is incapable of undermining the effectiveness of Russia’s
nuclear potential. This is true. But in presenting the subject in
these narrow terms, Washington is diverting attention from the much
The missile-defense elements planned for Poland and the Czech
Republic are the third phase of what is most likely a broader U.S.
strategy to build a universal missile-defense shield that covers
the entire globe. After the third phase we could see the United
States building a fourth, fifth and sixth phase. The only reason
why Washington would push so hard for the third phase in Central
Europe — which on its own is of questionable use — would be if
that project were a stepping stone toward something much larger and
strategically significant: that is, if we are talking about the
construction of a global missile-defense system that could protect
the United States from any threat from any corner of the world.
There are serious doubts that this is technologically possible, but
this could change in the future. And if it does, the strategic
balance in the world would shift dramatically because it would
remove the basic principle that has ensured stability in the past
— the threat of mutually assured destruction.
Since the Cold War is behind us, the harsh measures required to
ensure security in the 1970s are no longer needed. But the
missile-defense system could only increase global stability and
security if all of the major powers participate in making a common
security shield. If, however, Russia or China is excluded, this
would clearly tip the security balance in favor of the United
To resolve the missile-defense problem, negotiations must be
held in a global, multilateral context. According to Washington’s
arguments, the Central European missile-defense program is tied to
another urgent international problem — Iran’s nuclear-missile
program. But those issues are closely intertwined and should be
discussed together, along with the larger issue of nuclear
Without a mutually satisfactory decision on missile defense, it
would be difficult to expect bilateral cooperation on weapons
control. Russia has repeatedly called on the Bush administration to
return to the previous agenda of arms reductions. But if Washington
tries to create a universal missile-defense shield on its own, it
would necessarily bury any chances or reaching a bilateral
agreement on disarmament. By agreeing to reduce its own arsenal,
Moscow would be effectively helping the United States build a
impenetrable missile-defense shield. After all, the U.S. ability to
intercept incoming missiles depends to a large degree on how many
are launched by the opposing side. The fewer missiles that Russia
has in its arsenal, the fewer interceptors and radar facilities the
United States would have to install across the globe to achieve
Resolving the missile-defense problem would not only improve
U.S.-Russian relations but could become a key to untangling a whole
knot of other disagreements. There is a chance that after Jan. 20
Moscow will have partners in Washington who are much more willing
to solve these problems. After all, Democrats have always shown
less interest in «Star Wars» programs than the Republicans. In
addition, the new administration will be under increased pressure
to cut costs, and both the White House and Congress will have no
choice but to set priorities for U.S. defense expenditures.
The unilateral decision in 2001 by the Bush administration to
withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was a turning
point in international relations. In general, U.S. unilateralism
has been destructive to both the United States and the world.
Therefore, if Obama’s pledge to incorporate multilaterism into U.S.
foreign policy begins with developing a global missile-defense
system in close cooperation with other countries, this will be a
very constructive step toward building a new multipolar model for
If I could give the Kremlin one piece of advice, I would urge
them to not destroy this promising opportunity with the new U.S.
administration by resorting to inflammatory rhetoric. This only
puts the United States in a position where compromise would be
perceived as weakness.