Will Obama trade missile defense curbs for Russian arms cuts?

His administration isn't that interested in a missile shield in Europe, but seems unlikely to concede it in upcoming talks.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Missile defense is an issue that has split Washington and Moscow for decades. And it is likely to remain a point of contention when President Obama visits Russia next week – despite the fact that Mr. Obama is less enthusiastic than his predecessor about US plans to erect missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe.

Ironically, the fact that Obama is less supportive of the concept may also make him less likely to yield to Russian demands for curbs on missile defense, at least for now, say some experts.

"I think the administration finds itself painted a little bit into a corner on missile defense," said Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a July 2 briefing in advance of Obama's trip. "It's simply not very politic right now to be viewed as making any concessions to the Russians, who don't seem to be particularly interested in making concessions themselves."

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The subject is sure to come up in the context of arms talks, as the US and Russia work to forge a new nuclear weapons reduction treaty to replace the venerable START 1 pact, which expires in December. Kremlin leaders have said they want the US missile defense plans for Eastern Europe scrapped as part of any such agreement.

On Friday, Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko said that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama are expected to sign a declaration of understanding on arms reductions as part of their meetings, which begin July 6.

The declaration is likely to set specific target numbers for a new treaty, said Mr. Prikhodko. Russia will also allow the US to ship weapons through its territory to Afghanistan, he said. Currently, it has been allowing only non-lethal supplies for US operations in Afghanistan through its territory.

But he reiterated Moscow's position that further weapons cuts and US plans for a possible missile shield in Europe are inextricably linked.

Russia's concerns on this issue "must be addressed," said Prikhodko.

However, Obama is unlikely to agree to explicit curbs on US plans for facilities in Poland the Czech Republic, say US experts. The administration may propose vague treaty language that simply recognizes Russia's concerns.

"The Americans' approach to this summit is actually a little ... hard-boiled," said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an analysis posted on CFR's website. "They're not prepared to make a lot of concessions merely to reach an agreement on START 1."

Following his trip to Russia, Obama will travel to Italy for the annual Group of 8 meeting, and then on to Ghana in a swing through Africa before heading home.

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