24th Sep 2023

Obama offers European missile trade off to Russia

  • Barack Obama's administration wants to improve relations with Russia (Photo: The Israel Project)

US President Barack Obama sent a secret letter to his Russian counterpart three weeks ago, offering to back off from deploying a controversial missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic in return for Moscow's support against the Iranian nuclear programme.

According to unnamed officials cited by the New York Times, the letter to President Dmitri Medvedev was hand-delivered in Moscow by top-level diplomats three weeks ago. It said the United States would not need to proceed with the interceptor system, which has been fiercely opposed by Russia since it was proposed by the Bush administration, if Iran halted any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.

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The letter, sent in response to one he received from Mr Medvedev shortly after Mr Obama's inauguration, is part of an effort to "press the reset button" on Russian-American relations, as vice-president Joseph Biden put it at the Munich security conference last month.

The plan to build a high-tech radar facility in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland was a top priority for President George W. Bush. He claimed the move would deter Iran in case it developed a nuclear warhead to fit atop its long-range missiles.

Moscow has so far vehemently opposed this plan, saying it considered it a direct threat. Within hours of Mr Obama's election in November, President Medvedev threatened to install ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave sandwiched between the Baltic Sea, Lithuania and Poland, if the new US administration did not drop its plans.

Mr Obama has so far been lukewarm on missile defence, saying he supports it only if it can be proved technically effective and affordable.

Contrary to what the letter might indicate, Gregory B. Craig, one of Mr Obama's foreign policy advisors told EUobserver in October that there would never be a trade off over eastern Europe's security interests.

"The notion that you choose to co-operate with Russia vis-a-vis Iran at the expense of central and eastern Europe, I just don't accept that. That's not viable and it won't happen that way," Mr Craig said.

Poles insist on sweeteners

Polish and Czech politicians strained their relations with other EU partners and Russia over the bilateral defence shield agreements, signed last year with the US.

After his meeting with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton last week, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski indicated his country might have to "look beyond [the] US missile defence shield", while insisting that the other promises made by the Bush administration as part of the deal be kept, including an American garrison with Patriot interceptor missiles.

"What we would like to be honoured is what went along with" the missile-defence system, Mr Sikorski said during a visit to Washington that included a meeting with Ms Clinton. "We paid quite a political price for the agreement, both in terms of internal politics and in our relations with Russia."

Mr Sikorski said Polish leaders are not "lobbyists" for the missile-defence system, to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic and intended to ward off potential missile attacks from Iran. "It's a US project and a US decision," he said.

Obama-led US would protect eastern Europe

If elected president of the US, senator Barack Obama would not trade eastern European security for Russian help on Iran, his senior foreign policy advisor, Gregory B. Craig, told EUobserver in an interview. The notion the US tried to sabotage the Lisbon treaty is "silly," he added.

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