Saturday, February 20, 2010

New Missile Plans, New Problems For US/Russian Relations

So much for “resetting” relations with Russia I guess…

Just five months ago the Obama Administration gave a boost to their attempts at repairing relations with Russia with their decision to pull the plug on a scheme to base an anti-ballistic missile shield (or ABM) in Poland and the Czech Republic. Now Washington is putting new strains on that same relationship by floating plans to base elements of the US missile shield in Bulgaria and Romania instead.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with developments in anti-missile defense, a brief recap: The Bush Administration pushed to base elements of the ABM shield – a radar station in the Czech Republic and ten anti-missile missiles in Poland – in Eastern Europe to protect the Continent against rocket attacks from “rogue states”. In practice “rogue states” was translated as “Iran”. But Iran doesn’t even have ballistic missiles with the range to reach Europe, nor was it ever explained why Iran would even want to launch missiles against Europe, and there were questions about whether or not the ABM system would even work in the first place, so all in all the ABM project didn’t make a lot of sense.

The plan did however infuriate the Russians. Publicly, Russia complained that the ABM system was intended not to guard against rogue states but to oppose their own nuclear missiles, something the Americans said wasn’t true since the ten interceptors in Poland could easily be overwhelmed by the thousands of missiles in the Russian arsenal. In reality, a lot of Russia’s opposition to the ABM program stemmed from the fact that they still consider Eastern Europe to be within their “sphere of influence” (a belief held over from Soviet times). Russia likely also doubted American claims that ABM was solely a defensive system since they had received similar assurances about NATO back in the 1990s, right before NATO went on the offensive against Russia’s long-time ally, Serbia in 1999.

Ultimately, the Obama Administration’s decision to end the ABM program in Poland and the Czech Republic last year seemed to be based more on a cost-analysis of an expensive, yet strategically dubious weapons program than as a way to placate the Russians, but it had that effect also, which is what makes the Administration’s decision this week even more puzzling. Russia considers Bulgaria to be in their backyard just as much as they do Poland (maybe even more so since Russian-Bulgarian relations have historically been much better than Russian-Polish ones), so their anger over the latest ABM decision is no surprise. At the same time, Poland will likely view this as a slap against them – if the US was going to base an ABM system in Eastern Europe anyway, why not just keep it on Polish soil?

One explanation could be Bulgaria’s importance in two competing natural gas pipeline projects meant to ship gas from Central Asia to Europe – the Russian-backed South Stream and the American-supported Nabucco (the United States hopes Nabucco will help to lessen Europe’s dependence on Russia for their natural gas supplies). Bulgaria is a key transit point in both plans, so perhaps ABM is a way for the United States to build up relations with Bulgaria to win them over to Nabucco.

But whatever the motivation, the latest chapter in the ABM saga is already causing problems in US-Russian relations. Russia is now threatening to suspend talks on a renewal of the START nuclear arms reduction pact, while the tiny pro-Russian quasi-nation of Transdnestr (a breakaway region of Moldova) is offering to host Russian ballistic missiles in response to an American ABM base in Bulgaria.
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