President Obama this morning announced the cancellation of the long-range missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic agreed to by his predecessor in favor of a system of  sensors and interceptors based at sea.

 

Jeff Mason for Reuters:

In a brief announcement, Obama said he was dropping a plan to base interceptor missiles in Poland and build a radar system in the Czech Republic — a move that could ease tensions with Russia but fan regional fears of resurgent Kremlin influence. “The best way to responsibly advance our security and the security of our allies is to deploy a missile defense system that best responds to the threats that we face and that utilizes technology that is both proven and cost effective,” Obama said.

Moscow said it would welcome a decision to scrap the plans, which had complicated U.S. efforts to enlist Russian support over Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear arms control.

Mason reports that the administration is selling this as a strategic reassessment rather than a capitulation to Moscow: “Pentagon officials said the decision to move away from the shield was based on intelligence indicating Iran is focused on developing short- and medium-range missiles rather than the long-range intercontinental missiles originally feared.”

Washington Post reporters Michael D. Shear, Ann Scott Tyson and Debbi Wilgoren expand on this angle:

The president said he was accepting the “unanimous” recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in turning away from the former administration’s plan to place interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic.

Instead, a distributed sensor system, apparently envisioned as a more advanced version of the Navy’s Aegis theater missile defense system, would “deploy techniques that are proven and cost-effective and will counter the current threat more effectively and do so sooner” that a longer-range system would, Obama said. He said the system he is embracing will offer “stronger, smarter and swifter defense of American forces and America’s allies.”

Obama’s statement from the White House was followed by a news conference at the Pentagon by Gates and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gates, who as Bush’s defense secretary publicly embraced the longer-range system, said the option chosen by Obama could be implemented several years earlier and would be more effective, especially since the threat of long-range missiles from Iran is no longer believed to be as imminent.  “It is more adapted to the threat we see developing, and takes advantage of” the latest technology available to the United States, Gates said.

That’s mostly a fig leaf although, ironically, Moscow had little to do with this decision, either.

The strategic situation has not changed radically in the thirteen months since the system was first announced, although May’s launch of a Sejil-2 missile did change the urgency of getting a system in place.  What has changed is the political landscape.  Obama is continuing the Democratic Party line, going back to the announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative by Ronald Reagan, of skepticism on the merits of missile defense.

Regardless of the rationale, though, Moscow will naturally see it as a victory. Telegraph analyst Andrew Osborn agrees, arguing that Russia will see this as a reward for its bullying posture.

The climb-down undoubtedly does represent a significant strategic victory for the Kremlin. It also gives substance to Washington’s so far woolly “reset” of relations with Russia, and will go a long way to soothe wounded Russian egos.

Moscow’s biggest complaint about the Bush administration was that it did not take Russia or Russian strategic interests seriously. There is nothing Russians hate more than to think that their old Cold War adversary is not giving them the respect they believe they are due. This therefore will be held up as proof to ordinary Russians that Russia is once again a serious player on the world stage. It will become part of the “Russia rises from its knees” narrative so beloved of Kremlin spin doctors in the blink of an eye.

The Kremlin is not known for missing opportunities to pat itself on the back and this particular propaganda coup has been served up on a plate with all the trimmings. The crowing could be loud. The reflected glory will go to Vladimir Putin. The prime minister has been the missile shield’s most vocal and high profile opponent, drawing on some of his famously fiery rhetoric to reject the US plan. This news will serve to bolster his already stellar popularity ratings, cementing his position as Russia’s most powerful politician and heavyweight international statesman. Russia’s diplomatic elite will see it as a vindication of Moscow’s publicly uncompromising stance on the issue.

Further, this will be seen as a poke in the eye to our Eastern European allies, who were informed of this decision only hours before the public announcement.

Many politicians in the missile shield’s putative host countries – Poland and the Czech Republic – will undoubtedly feel jilted and let down by Washington. Former Soviet bloc countries had already begun to voice concerns that Washington’s vaunted reset of relations with Moscow would come at their expense. For many, this move is likely to be seen as a disappointing confirmation of that.

An unsigned companion piece “Anger in Europe as Barack Obama ‘scraps missile defence shield,'” continues this theme.

The former Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, said: “This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence. It puts us in a position wherein we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that’s a certain threat.”

The Polish deputy foreign minister, Andrzej Kremer, saidthat Warsaw had heard from different sources there were “serious chances” the anti-missile system would not be deployed.

Peter Baker and Nicholas Kulish of NYT, who call this “one of the biggest national security reversals by the new administration,” also note the “unfortunate timing” of the announcement on “the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, a date fraught with sensitivity for Poles who viewed the Bush missile defense system as a political security blanket against Russia.”  

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.