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Russia's response to US missile defense shield shift

Moscow has long opposed a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the US shouldn't expect too much in return.

By Correspondent / September 17, 2009

President Barack Obama speaks about the US missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland on Thursday in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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MOSCOW – President Barack Obama's decision to shelve plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe could be seen as a major concession to Moscow. But given years of vehement opposition to the controversial plan, Russian reaction to the move appears surprisingly lukewarm.

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So what does it mean for US-Russia relations?

There are indications that Russia might support tougher sanctions on Iran, and fresh START talks, as well as more cooperation with the war in Afghanistan. The Kremlin also expects the US to back off on expanding NATO, say Russian analysts.

"We see this as a pragmatic decision," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies, suggesting that internal US factors mainly account for Mr. Obama's choice. "Obama's sober approach is understandable, given the [economic] crisis, because this project would have given nothing but trouble."

If it sounds like Moscow has already discounted this sweeping strategic concession from Washington, experts suggest that's because Russia's foreign policy establishment had been expecting such a decision, at least since Obama hinted that he might give up the missile defense scheme during his summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow last July.

"We've been getting signals since last Spring that made it seem almost certain that the missile defense plan would be set aside," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

[After Lukyanov's comment was published here, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, read it on the floor of Congress today. Senator McCain was not pleased. Click here to see McCain's comments on C-SPAN2].

New arms deal now within reach, but concessions on Iran?

Mr. Lukyanov says the only predictable result of key importance is that negotiations for a new strategic arms reduction treaty to replace the soon-to-expire 1991 START accord are now likely to meet the December deadline for a fresh deal.

"Now we can be sure the new START agreement will be completed on time, because the vexing issue of missile defense and how it affects the strategic balance has been removed for the time being," he says. "That's quite an important matter."

But while Russian experts say the move can only contribute to a warmer dialogue between Moscow and Washington, they say no one should expect any reciprocal concessions from the Kremlin on issues of key concern to the US, such as Iran.

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