September 18, 2009
President Obama's decision to abandon the missile defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic agreed to by his predecessor has created a firestorm of controversy, with quite different reactions in Russia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and domestically.

Moscow Pleased but Circumspect

The Russians, for one, are quite pleased. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, "I very much hope that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others." Clifford Levy and Peter Baker report for NYT that "Mr. Putin and other Russian officials who spoke to reporters on Friday did not say whether Russia would respond with concessions to the United States, particularly on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and its overall military capabilities." Additionally, "The Russian officials did indicate that the Kremlin would withdraw its threat to base short-range missiles on Russia’s western border, in Kaliningrad."

Levy and Baker explain that,

The original Bush plan to counter Iranian missiles called for a sophisticated radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. As written, it arguably did not pose any real threat to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which even in its shrunken post-cold war state could easily overwhelm such a system. So Russian complaints fell into two broad categories, one geopolitical and the other technical.

In part, Russia found the Bush plan so provocative because it involved placing American weapons systems — and the American military personnel to run them — in two Eastern European countries that used to be satellites of Moscow. The Kremlin often cited its understanding of what the United States promised at the end of the cold war, to not deploy weapons systems in former Warsaw Pact countries, although American officials have denied such an explicit commitment. The fact that both Polish and Czech officials viewed the American missile defense system as a security blanket against feared Russian adventurism, rather than against the Iranian threat, only deepened the suspicion in the Kremlin. The Kremlin also viewed the plan in the context of NATO’s march to Russia’s borders as it admitted more members over the past decade or so, just one more part of what seemed in Moscow to be a plan to hem Russia in.

The more specific, technical Russian grievances against the missile defense plan involved not so much the system the Bush administration developed but its potential down the road. Russian officials acknowledged that the system could not thwart its hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But they argued that 10 interceptors could be eventually expanded to 100 or more. And they contended that the interceptors could be fitted with warheads and turned into offensive weapons close to their territory. Perhaps even more disturbing from the Russian perspective was the plan to install an advanced radar called X-band in the Czech Republic. The radar has the potential to “see” 360 degrees and deep into the European part of Russia, where many of its missile silos are based. Russian officials protested against the intrusion and assumed that America wanted the radar to keep track of Russian missiles.

The Head of the Russian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, is quoted by Russia Today television (via VOA) saying, "It is a clear sign that the United States is taking Russia and its arguments as seriously as their national security considerations. I am sure that the cooperation between the countries in the field of strategic security is more effective for both Russia and the United States than any AMD [anti-missile defense system], any armed forces or any military operation."

The Telegraph quotes Konstantin Kosachev, whom they describe as "a prominent MP and foreign affairs expert," as proclaiming, "The Obama administration is starting to understand us. Now we can talk about restoration of the strategic partnership between Russia and the United States."

Interestingly, it isn't all whoops and hollers coming from Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow's NATO envoy, tells RIA Novosti that this is not a big deal. "We are already hearing voices in the West...that it is a huge concession to Russia. But I wouldn't want us to become overwhelmed with some kind of childish euphoria." The report continues with a paraphrase: "The diplomat said Washington had simply corrected its own mistake and had chosen a more flexible and efficient approach to its global missile shield allegedly aimed against the ballistic missile threat from Iran." If that turns out to be the Russian government's official position, it will likely mean that reciprocity won't be forthcoming.

Mixed Reactions from Eastern Europe

The flip side of this coin, of course, is that U.S. allies in Eastern Europe naturally have the opposite response. Marcin Sobczyk and Marc Champion for WSJ:

Poland's fears that it is becoming a second-class U.S. ally whose interests come after those of Russia were reinforced by Washington's decision to reorient its missile-defense plans away from Central Europe.

While Polish government officials gave a cautious and generally upbeat assessment of the change in U.S. strategy Thursday, many nonetheless were concerned by what the shift said about the changing focus of the Obama administration. "I don't like this policy. It's not that we need the shield, but it's about the way we're treated here," Lech Walesa, Poland's first post-Communist president, said in televised comments.

Poland, which broke away from the Soviet orbit in 1989 and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 10 years later, had hoped the deployment of 10 interceptor missiles and the stationing of U.S. soldiers on its territory would improve its security, ensuring that if anyone attacked the U.S. would be compelled to react. Under Article 5 of the NATO pact, an attack on one member state is treated as an attack on all. Despite that assurance, Polish officials still see the country's NATO status as second-class and seek further security guarantees.

But, they rightly note, opinion was sharply divided even among Polish elites.

The conservative government and president that came to power in Warsaw in 2005 embraced the Bush administration's missile project. They also had a fraught relationship with Poland's two historic foes, Russia and Germany. Thursday, by coincidence, was the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, launched just weeks after Nazi Germany began its assault. The two powers divided their neighbor between them.

But a center-right government that took power in Poland in 2007 proved more skeptical of the U.S. project. It tried to improve relations with Moscow and Berlin and worried that while Iran -- the ostensible aggressor that the defense shield was meant to contain -- was unlikely to target Poland, hosting the installations could trigger a response from Russia. The new government bargained to get U.S. Patriot-missile batteries and a bigger U.S. troop contingent as part of the deal, delaying signature of the agreement until August 2008. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said he had received assurances from Washington that Poland would still get the Patriot missiles, a legal requirement under the 2008 deal, and that it would play a role in the revised missile-defense system.

VOA's Stefan Bos opens his report, "Several officials in the region warn that the move will improve Washington's relations with Moscow at the expense of other Eastern European allies." But, of course, the heads of government in both Poland and the Czech Republic are choosing their words carefully.

Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said President Obama told him early Thursday that the United States is abandoning plans to build a defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic aimed at intercepting missiles from other countries. Mr. Fischer said President Obama told him that the United States would not be building a missile-defense radar system on Czech territory. The prime minister added that the Czech Republic "acknowledges this decision".

[...]

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk says his country still remains loyal to the United States, despite the decision to scrap plans to build the anti-missile system.

Several officials at Poland's National Security Bureau are expressing concerns about the move, saying the presence of American troops on Polish soil would have increased the country's security.

Zbigniew Lewicki, a specialist in American studies at the University of Warsaw, told the Polish Radio External Service that there is also concern about Russia's perceived attempts to increase its influence in former Soviet satellite states, including Poland. "What is worrying is the fact that the decision was obviously taken as a result of Russia's insistence of scrapping the plan," said Lewicki. "And it also presents confirmation from the United States that Russia's wishes are very important in this part of the world. I think we should be very worried about that kind of approach. Nobody opposes better relations between the United States and Russia. But it should never be done in a manner which confirms Russia's unfounded claims to be the decisive force in this part of Europe."

Spiegel's Jan Puhl starts by noting that "US President Barack Obama's decision not to construct a missile shield has hit Warsaw hard, but the move was not unexpected." The report notes the internal politics of the matter.

Poland's Law and Justice Party [...] is suggesting Obama abandoned plans for the weapons system solely to improve ties with Moscow. The party is accusing the government of liberal Prime Minister Donald Tusk of not pushing ahead energetically enough to promote the missile plans.

Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski had reached an agreement with then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice over the stationing of the missile defense system, but it still hasn't been ratified by the Polish parliament. This proved to be a serious error, Witold Waszczykowski, who had negotiated with the Americans on behalf of the government in Warsaw. He accuses Tusk's government of not doing enough to ensure that Washington adhere to th its obligations in the agreement.

Polish opposition politicians are now concerned the country will lose the special status in Washington that it worked hard to get. And it wasn't just right-wing Polish governments who fought for it. Instead of purchasing European fighter jets in 2003, for example, Poland instead opted for American fighters. Warsaw immediately rallied to Washington's side during the Iraq war and even took up command of its own occupation zone along the Tigris River. But now, under Obama, many in Warsaw fear that US interest in its Eastern European allies is waning.

Jaroslaw Gowin, with Poland's governing Civic Platform party, was more sanguine. He said Obama's decision had been made independently of Polish sensitivities. Nor was it surprising. It has been clear since Obama's election that the chances were no longer good for the construction of the missile shield.

Further, as Guardian commentator Michael Tomasky and NYU political scientist Joshua Tucker point out, there's long been a divide between the publics of these countries and their governments, with mass opinion far more leery of the possibility that hosting the system would invite rather than deter Russian aggression. Indeed, as Time's Eben Harrell points out, the center-right governments in Poland and the Czech Republic that negotiated the deal have since been voted out of office.

Reactions in Western Europe Similarly Mixed.

While Obama is being excoriated as the second coming of Neville Chamberlain in some of the British press (Spectator blogger Alex Massie defends Chamberlain here), PM Gordon Brown welcomed the move, "I strongly support the decision that has been made by President Obama today. I think it shows that there is more trust developing between the nuclear power nations. And nonproliferation remains a very high priority for the United Kingdom." Similarly, French president Nicolas Sarkozy termed the decision "extremely wise."

Germany is in the midst of parliamentary elections and Obama's announcement has clear implications there, as a Spiegel report notes.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister and the candidate for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the upcoming election, interpreted the move as a "signal" that the Obama administration was looking to find "common solutions" to shared threats.

Norman Paech, the foreign-policy spokesman for the Left Party, called it "a wise decision" and said that perhaps this meant that the United States "was finally correctly estimating the danger presented by Iranian long-rang missiles."

Germany's Green Party interpreted the decision as an embarrassment for Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. "Both Merkel and the CDU are disgraced because they always welcomed and supported Bush's missile defense plans," said Jürgen Trittin, the party's leading candidate in the election. Tritten said that the plan had massively threatened security in Europe and called its cancellation "a slap in the face to the chancellor."

For her part, Merkel was downplayed her earlier cheerleading for basing the system in Eastern Europe and called the decision, "a hopeful signal to overcome the difficulties with Russia when it comes to a unified strategy to fight the threat from Iran"

U.S. Reaction Follows Party Lines

Finally, of course, the domestic reaction in the U.S. is largely falling along predictable lines. As Jorge Benitez notes at NATO Source, Republican leaders in Congress are expressing outrage. House Minority Leader John Boehner proclaimed "[s]crapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more then empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe" while Senator Lindsey Graham declared "It will empower the Russians and it will scare the crap out of the Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians and Georgians. It is a huge mistake." John McCain, who was defeated by Obama in last November's presidential contest, added, "This decision calls into question the security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe." David Kramer, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in the George W. Bush administration, takes to the op-ed pages of today's Washington Post to declare "Placating Russia Won't Work."

With the exception of neoconservative Joe Lieberman, the Democrats in Congress are quite pleased. Speaker of the House Nancy termed the decision "brilliant" while Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said it “reinforces our security commitment to our European allies; it does not weaken it.” New York's Chuck Schumer issued a statement saying, "President Obama is clearly demonstrating his willingness to reset relations between our two countries. The Russians should return the gesture."

Noted security analyst Thomas Barnett proclaims Obama's move a "good choice," noting that "We have VERY important friends much closer in than Eastern Europe. If we cannot stop Iran from getting nukes, then we need to demonstrate--close-in--that we are willing and able to provide defense options and retaliation capabilities. This is how we do it." Robert Farley, a Patterson School political scientist and well-regarded left-of-center security blogger writes in The Guardian that the move is a "tremendous victory for a sane foreign policy and a responsible defense policy. The US will save money, and avoid needlessly antagonizing Russia."

Finally, it should be noted that the decision has not been uniformly lambasted by prominent members of the opposition party. General Brent Scowcroft, Chairman of the Atlantic Council International Advisory Board and former National Security Adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, today issued the following statement through the Atlantic Council: "I strongly approve of President Obama's decision regarding missile defense deployments in Europe. I believe it advances U.S. national security interests, supports our allies, and better meets the threats we face."

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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