Russia's new threats may endanger Obama's 'reset' policy

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said this week that he has ordered the Russian military to immediately take measures to counter US plans to install advanced radars and anti-missile interceptors in European countries.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a United Russia party congress in Moscow, Russia, Sunday. President Medvedev warned that Russia will target US anti-missile sites in Europe and withdraw from the New START arms reduction treaty if the US doesn't change plans to deploy an anti-missile shield in European countries.

Russia will target US anti-missile sites in Europe, deploy advanced radars to monitor all missile launches from NATO territory, and might even withdraw from the New START arms reduction treaty that came into force this year unless Washington takes dramatic steps to allay Moscow's concerns over plans to deploy major elements of an anti-missile shield in several European countries, President Dmitry Medvedev warned this week.

In his toughest-ever foreign policy statement, which Russian officials qualified Friday as "a call to dialogue," Mr. Medvedev said he has ordered the Russian military to immediately take measures to restore the strategic balance – as Moscow understands it – to counter US plans to install advanced radars and anti-missile interceptors in countries such as Poland, Romania, and Turkey in the next few years.

Analysts say the harsh Russian line could undermine President Obama's "reset" policy of making concessions in order to establish practical cooperation with Moscow, at a time when it is already under withering fire at home from Republicans who argue that Mr. Obama has already given away too much to the Kremlin  with little to show for it in return.

Medvedev said that unless Obama signs a clearly worded and legally-binding statement declaring that NATO's anti-missile weapons will never be used against Russia, he will have "no choice" but to go ahead with Russian countermeasures, which would include stationing medium-range Iskander missiles in Russia's western enclave of Kaliningrad, from where they could rapidly strike NATO facilities across Europe.

"If our partners show an honest and responsible attitude towards taking into account Russia’s legitimate security interests, I am sure we can come to an agreement," Medvedev said. "But if we are asked to ‘cooperate’ or in fact act against our own interests it will be difficult to establish common ground. In such a case we would be forced to take a different response."

"If the situation continues to develop not to Russia’s favor, we reserve the right to discontinue further disarmament and arms control measures," including withdrawal from the New START treaty, he added.

The impasse over US missile defense plans has long been viewed by analysts on both sides as a make-or-break issue in efforts to get beyond the cold war legacy and forge a genuine strategic partnership between the US and Russia. Moscow fears that future development of the shield could undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent, whose core is a force of aging land-based Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But analysts are baffled over why Medvedev appears to have chosen to force the issue right now.

Medvedev's gift to the GOP?

Some suggest that it may be for purely domestic consumption. Russia will hold elections next week for the State Duma and the ruling United Russia party, headed by Medvedev, has seen its popular support sharply eroded in recent weeks.

But others warn that Medvedev could be handing a political gift to Obama's Republican opponents, who might use it to bury the "reset" completely.

"This is an extremely tone deaf statement from Medvedev, which sounds as if it were written to appeal to hardliners in the West in order to draw the most rigid possible response," says Alexei Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security at Moscow's prestigious Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "As for the threat to quit START, it's like saying we are ready to cut off our own nose to spite our face."

Last year, Medvedev offered a plan to build a joint "sectoral" missile defense shield for Europe, in which Russia would cover its own territory and NATO's anti-missile measures would stop at the Russian border.

Since any rogue missile launch by Iran or North Korea would inevitably traverse Russian airspace, NATO leaders subsequently rejected Medvedev's concept as too limiting as it would leave European defense at the mercy of Russian capabilities and political will.

In a statement Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Andres Fogh Rasmussen said he was disappointed by Medvedev's suggestion that Russian missile deployments near the borders of NATO countries is an appropriate response to Western efforts to create an anti-missile shield. He added that NATO is ready to continue dialogue with Moscow to "show that cooperation, not confrontation, is the way ahead."

Obama's 'reset' button

Besides the New START treaty, which slashes offensive nuclear arsenals on both sides, Obama's reset has brought improved Russian cooperation in pressuring Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program.

It's also resulted in Russia's agreement for a "northern corridor" through former Soviet territory, through which more than half of all supplies for NATO's beleaguered operation in Afghanistan now flow.

"Russia is not going to leave the START treaty, that would be really foolish," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "Medvedev just wanted to make it clear our talks with NATO on anti-missile weapons have failed. It's important to say so, because there is an impression [in the West] that everything's OK because we held talks on the subject. It's not OK. Russia is not happy, and this is an outstanding issue to be raised in future, and which will be key to US-Russia relations."

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