Will NATO missile defense idea have 'mutual benefit' for US, Russia?

Proposal for partnership follows Obama's decision to nix a missile shield based in Europe.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The partnership proposed Friday by NATO between the US, NATO, and Russia suggests the Obama administration's decision to abandon a controversial missile defense system in Europe could open up new diplomatic doors. The question will be, how wide?

On Friday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen proposed a new alliance between NATO allies and Russia, suggesting that the countries could work together to counter a common missile threat from Iran.

"NATO and Russia have a wealth of experience in missile defense," he said in his first major foreign policy speech. "We should now work to combine this experience to our mutual benefit."

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The White House announced Thursday that it was discarding a multibillion-dollar ballistic missile defense system that was to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic and was a centerpiece of the Bush administration's security stance in Europe. It cited intelligence that any attack from Iran is more likely to come from short- to medium-range missiles, and has proposed a defense system tailored to that threat with interceptors based, for now, on ships.

Some praise the move as an opportunity to change the dynamics with an old foe, relations with whom had soured under the Bush administration since Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. Russia viewed the plan for a land-based system in Eastern Europe as unnecessary US interference in the regional balance of power.

But Russia, which should be rejoicing in the Obama administration's decision on missile defense, is already making new demands on US trade restrictions, notes David Kramer of the German Marshall Fund, a public policy group based in Washington.

"Give him some ground on one issue, and they look to seize ground on another," he says. "Their appetite is insatiable."

Onus now on Russia

Still, a senior Kremlin official told Reuters Friday that President Obama's move had opened the door for greater cooperation on arms reduction and nuclear nonproliferation, especially on Iran.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who is to meet Mr. Obama Sept. 23 in New York, said in an interview published Friday that Russia would listen more attentively to US concerns, though there would be no "primitive compromises."

In response to the US move, Moscow scrapped plans to deploy truck-mounted Iskander missiles and nuclear-capable T-22 strategic bombers in Kaliningrad, an area bordering Poland.

Neither this nor NATO's partnership proposal may assuage fears among former Soviet-bloc countries about being left vulnerable to Russia. Leaders there have already expressed alarm about the US dropping the land-based missile shield. Poland and the Czech Republic saw the missile system as a way to cement US commitment to their defense against Russia.

Many Republicans have also decried the move as a capitulation to Russia. Some say the US is putting too many chips on the table without demanding anything in return.

Clinton defends move

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the change in missile shield plans Friday, saying the administration is not shelving missile defense but making it more effective and flexible.

She also reassured European allies about US commitment, noting that a US Patriot antimissile unit will do rotational duty in Poland, and that the US will also be engaged in "close missile defense research and development" with Czech companies.

"We would never, never walk away from our allies," she said in a speech at the Brookings Institution.

Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who worked for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, said the decision was wise. "I believe it advances US national security interests, supports our allies, and better meets the threats we face," he said in a prepared statement.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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