The Bush administration had envisioned 2008 as the year construction would begin on U.S. long-range anti-ballistic missile bases in Europe, but it still must convince others to go along with its plan. Moscow vigorously opposes the move and recently accused Washington of backsliding on proposals to ease Russia’s concerns, Warsaw and Prague have yet to agree to host sites, and Congress recently denied funding to start building the potential bases.
Although the United States engaged in missile defense cooperation discussions with the Polish and Czech governments as early as 2004 (see ACT, July/August 2004 ), official negotiations on the initiative, as well as intense scrutiny of it, did not begin until early last year. Russia immediately denounced the proposal, 10 interceptors in Poland coupled with a precision tracking radar in the Czech Republic, as targeting its missiles.
The Bush administration claims that the system is designed to counter what it says is a growing ballistic missile threat from Iran. It further contends the proposed defense poses no threat to Russia and last November presented the Kremlin with proposals that the administration said were intended to alleviate Russian anxieties. The offers followed on October talks involving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and their Russian counterparts. (See ACT, November 2007. )
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov charged Dec. 5, however, that the written proposals fell short of what had been previously discussed. He told reporters, “[U]nfortunately, a serious rollback from what we had been told occurred.”
Lavrov argued that the United States reneged on an idea not to operate the radar or install interceptors in their silos until a threat materialized. He also contended the United States balked on permitting a permanent Russian presence at the European sites and backed off a commitment that Russia would have input on activating the system.
A U.S. government official knowledgeable of the talks and the draft proposals told Arms Control Today Dec. 21 that Russian officials appeared to have “overly interpreted” the earlier remarks of Rice and Gates. The official noted that both secretaries personally approved the document delivered to Russia.
The U.S. official contended that Rice and Gates talked about stationing U.S. and Russian personnel at each other’s sites related to missile defense, but made clear that any Russian visits or presence at European bases would depend on a host nation’s consent. Lieutenant General Henry Obering, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), made this point publicly several times last year.
Obering, Rice, and other senior officials also repeatedly have declared that Russia would not be given a veto over U.S. missile defense plans. Indeed, shortly after Rice and Gates visited Moscow last October, Reuters quoted Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs, as explaining, “[W]e will not ask Russia’s permission to turn [the system] on.”
Gates, however, volunteered to Russia that the United States might postpone activation of a system until there is clear evidence of a threat. U.S. and Russian officials further agreed to discuss their separate criteria for assessing potential dangers. But the U.S. official said it was never suggested that there had to be consensus on the criteria or on the existence of a threat for either side to act.
U.S. and Russian officials met again Dec. 13 in Budapest without resolution. The U.S. official said the two sides plan to continue talking early this year but that no date has been set.
The Bush administration has emphasized that it will move forward without the Kremlin’s consent if negotiations with the Czech Republic and Poland are completed. Early last year, U.S. officials suggested talks with the two potential host countries might take a matter of months, but they have lagged longer.
Moreover, October parliamentary elections in Poland resulted in a new government that is taking a fresh look at the proposed project. Led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the government has made improving relations with Russia a goal and will meet in late January with Russian officials to discuss a variety of issues, including missile defense. The next formal round of U.S.-Polish missile defense talks has not been scheduled, but the new Polish defense minister, Bogdan Klich, is scheduled to visit Gates in mid-January, when the topic is expected to come up.
Radek Sikorski, the new Polish foreign minister, previously has criticized the U.S. approach as clumsy and insufficient, suggesting that Poland should receive additional benefits and weapon systems for hosting a site that might anger Russia. Writing March 21, 2007, in The Washington Post, Sikorski argued the proposed system could “generate a new security partnership with the countries of the region” or “provoke a spiral of misunderstanding, weaken NATO, deepen Russian paranoia and cost the United States some of its last friends on the continent.”
Similar concerns have nagged some U.S. lawmakers. Indeed, the defense appropriations act, signed into law by President George W. Bush Nov. 13, 2007 (see page 36 ), cuts $85 million from the administration’s original $310 million request for work on the system during fiscal year 2008, which began Oct. 1, 2007. The cut funds had been allocated to construction activities in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Pending host-nation agreements, MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner told Arms Control Today Dec. 18 that construction on the two sites could begin in early 2009. The goal, he said, would be to put the first interceptor in its silo in 2011.
Before any interceptors are emplaced, however, Congress maintains they must be proven “through successful, operationally realistic flight testing.” MDA has yet to flight-test the proposed European interceptor, which is a modified version of the 24 U.S. long-range interceptors currently deployed in Alaska and California.As part of the defense authorization bill, which Bush and Congress are still contesting, legislators have included a provision calling for a $1 million independent study of the missile threat to Europe and an analysis of alternative or complimentary anti-missile systems to the administration’s proposed defense. The report would be due within 180 days after the legislation becomes law.
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