The decision by Washington not to install a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic has prompted Russians to breathe a little easier on Thursday. It is also fueling a sense of triumph.
The main reason for President Barack Obama's decision was "Russia's uncompromising position on the issue," said the clearly pleased Russian foreign policy expert Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign policy committee of the Federation Council of Russia, the country's upper legislative chamber. And Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Duma's foreign relations committee, said he sees evidence that today's American government has a better understanding of the Russians' concerns.
With his decision, Obama has removed a significant barrier to relations between Washington and Moscow, where the missile defense shield had always been seen as a slap in the face. "George W. Bush wanted to show that he didn't care a bit about Russia's opinion," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Moscow's Russia in Global Affairs magazine, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He sees Obama's step as being important primarily in psychological terms. The promised "restart" in Russia-American relations is bearing fruit, he said.
One year ago in August, just after the start of the war between Russia and Georgia over the renegade republic South Ossetia, Warsaw and Prague quickly moved to sign agreements with Washington regarding the installation of the American missile defense shield in their countries. But Barack Obama, who would be elected president a short time later, showed very little enthusiasm for the project -- even during the days of his presidential campaign. After he entered office, Eastern European countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and even Georgia became less strategically important to him. After all, the US was mainly concerned with finding a way out of the financial and economic crisis.
The question now is what Russia will offer the United States in exchange for freezing the missile program in Poland and the Czech Republic?
Was Shelving Part of a Deal with Moscow?
In March, months before Obama's official state visit to Moscow, the first news leaked of what that horse-trading might include. The Moscow daily Kommersant reported on a secret letter in which Obama apparently demanded a harder course from the Russian president against Iran. In exchange, Washington would freeze its missile shield plans. But officials disputed that any kind of "deal" was being made. Obama did, however, confirm that missile defense appeared to be less important in reducing the threat from Iran. Still, Russia's policies toward Iran have hardly changed: Moscow continues to be in favor of negotiations but opposes tougher sanctions.
It's also unlikely Russia will suddenly adopt a firmer stance towards Iran. "The US will be disappointed," Lukyanov said. "The American idea that Russia holds the key to a solution to the Iranian nuclear problem is a fantasy." At best, he said, Russia could intensify its diplomatic efforts.
Click on the image below to launch a SPIEGEL ONLINE Flash animation of the missile shield system as originally planned.
Nevertheless, the Russians have made concessions to the US on the issue of Afghanistan. In 2008, Moscow began permitting the transport of American supplies over Russian territory. And on Sept. 6, Russia also started allowing American aircraft to transport military supplies for Afghanistan through Russian airspace. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reached a deal on that issue during the US president's official visit.
4,500 US Overflight Rights over Russian Territory Per Year
The deal, which permits up to 4,500 US Army flights per year, was extremely important to the Americans. The Russian transit routes provide an important alternative to the main routes through Pakistan, where American convoys are often attacked by Taliban insurgents. Russian politicians have also expressed again and again that it is in their vital interest that the Taliban not be allowed to get the upper hand in Afghanistan.
And the freezing of the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic will also doubtlessly improve Russian-American relations. But there are still plenty of problems on the agenda. The START treaty on the reduction of strategic nuclear warheads, for example, expires in December. Lukyanov says he believes that, following Obama's decision on Thursday, few barriers will stand in the way of the successful signing of a successor treaty this year.
The main current source of tension for the relationship between the US and Russia actually lies further away, in Georgia and Ukraine. Both of those nations were supported in their anti-Russian ways by the former American administration headed by George W. Bush, who held out the prospect of NATO membership.
Ukraine and Georgia as a Bone of Contention
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, whose attitude to Obama's predecessor was sycophantic, may be on his last legs politically. But in the last few months Yushchenko has steered a confrontational course in regard to Russia. On Jan. 17, 2010, there will be a presidential election in Ukraine. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already made it clear that he no longer wants to see Yushchenko in the position. Lukyanov is convinced that "it could get very unpleasant for Russia during the election campaign." Some of the candidates will use a pro-West, hard core anti-Russian stance to further their political aims.
Things are not altogether peaceful in the former Soviet republic of Georgia either. A new attempt by the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to take back the renegade states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot be ruled out completely. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the US is still delivering weapons to Georgia -- something the Russians naturally do not like. In July, the Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin threatened any country that was delivering weapons to Georgia with sanctions.
In Poland and the Czech Republic, they are nervously anticipating what Obama may offer as a replacement. "There will be an American presence but it will take a different form," Lukyanov said. What form that presence takes will determine future relations with Moscow.
"Russia doesn't have any problems with non-strategic rockets," Lukyanov says. "But if the US opens a military base, then we will have the same situation that we had with the missile defense system."