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Missile Defense Crisis Waits For Presidential Elections, Not Chicago Summit – OpEd


By Habibe Ozdal

The missile shield system, for which NATO is currently conducting preliminary preparations, raises tensions in Russia’s relations with the West. Since mid-2011, it has been expected that many problems pertaining to the actualization of the aforementioned system were to be answered in the Chicago Summit of NATO. But the “microphone incident” that occurred during the Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012 proved that the presidential elections that will take place in the U.S. should reach their conclusion before the future of the missile shield is considered. On the other hand, it was known that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not go to the 2012 NATO Summit. It can be argued that the failure of the two sides to make significant progress on missile defense up until the recent summit is another reason for Putin’s decision not to attend. Since it is clear that until the elections are over any significant step toward “negotiating” the system will not come from the U.S., Putin preferred not to come together with Obama.

To bear in mind, during the Nuclear Security Summit which took place in the South Korean capital Seoul at the end of March, as Presidents Obama and Medvedev were preparing to give a press conference, some of their remarks to each other were accidentally overheard on a live microphone. For many people they were extremely interesting. Obama told Medvedev “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” Medvedev said that he would pass this on to Putin. The remarks were naturally exploited in U.S. domestic politics as the presidential elections approach, but they do contain important hints about the future of Turkish-Russian relations. As far as the resolution of the deadlock over the missile defense system is concerned, attention is currently fixed on the Chicago Summit of May 2012, but it is generally understood that practical results will have to wait until after the U.S. presidential elections.

The topic which Obama mentioned and promised to be flexible was the deployment of the missile shield system in Europe, something which has been causing strains in U.S.-Russian relations ever since the 1980s. The issue caused a blockage in relations during the Bush-Putin period, and when under Obama the U.S. transferred it to NATO, it took a different turn. The point has now been reached where it may be understood that trying to have the project operated by NATO serves only to shift the problem. Because although the system is being designed to cope with threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea, the Kremlin is fiercely opposed to it on the grounds that it will reduce Russia’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.

Moscow Suggests Cooperation

Moscow has two demands about the system that is going to be established alongside it. Russia is first proposing that the system come into being as a result of a partnership between NATO and Russia, in a way that will contain measures regarding defense which are both transparent and build up mutual confidence. Second, it would like a written guarantee that the system has not been designed against Russia.

From the point of view of the Kremlin, there is a backup plan to NATO’s proposal to implement the missile shield jointly. It involves Russia having given permission to the U.S. to use the military base in the city of Ulyanovsk as it prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. Using this particular base would enable it to handle the transit passage of military cargo and units coming out of Afghanistan. Russia is signaling with this move that it is prepared to cooperate with NATO and the U.S. in security.

Neither of Russia’s proposals has yet received a response from NATO. It seems essentially rather utopian to think of Russia and NATO jointly setting up a missile defense system. Cooperation of this kind would require either the establishment of mutual confidence at a high level or establishing a long-term alliance against a common threat. Seen in the context of NATO and Russia, both options look remote. To put it another way, mutual confidence between NATO and Russia of the kind which would permit them to operate a missile shield system jointly simply does not exist. So in this respect, it may be said that the proposal is at a dead end. Washington is rather reluctant when it comes to written guarantees. On the other hand, it is to be understood that there will inevitably be some developments after November 2012.

Is NATO-Russia Cooperation Possible?

Although it hardly appears possible that the missile defense system can be jointly established by Russia and NATO working together as partners, there are indications which should rule out any expectations of a crisis between them in the coming period reminiscent of the Cold War era. Looking at things from the perspective of the U.S. as it gets ready to withdraw from Afghanistan, it is not very difficult to suppose that it would not want to break off its links with Russia at a time when no one knows what will happen in the Middle East and anxieties about Iran’s nuclear activities are mounting. The words of Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, emphasize this point: “We have no interest in going back to some kind of Cold War – bitter, bickering rhetoric. We don’t think that serves the American national interest.”

An evaluation based on the Russian perspective also seems to show that there are valid reasons why the crisis in relations with the U.S. should not drag on. According to President Putin who believes that prejudices against Russia linger on in Washington, the basic problem is that political dialogue and cooperation in bilateral relations are not founded on an economic basis. Put more directly, Putin blames the fact that there is no safety net protecting relations against their downturns due to the lack of an economic dimension in relations. He has thus in one sense signaled the road map, which he believes is necessary to put relations on a sound footing.

Russia’s changing socio-economic dynamics were the basic factors cited by Western experts who took the view that Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency would be the beginning of the end for Russia. Mr. Putin’s ability to keep in step with these changing dynamics will be one of the main indicators of the new Putin term in office. Mr. Putin’s “liberal constitutionalist” approach in relations with the U.S. may appear to conflict with his realpolitik style of politics, but at least at the level of rhetoric Mr. Putin embodies the spirit of the times. This is why the missile shield system can be solved in the time ahead of us with mutual flexibility before it turns into a crisis. None of the main developments taking place between 2008 and 2012 took place despite Mr. Putin. In this sense, it is to be expected that cooperation between the two countries will continue whenever it is to their advantage. But there are unmistakable differences between the rhetoric of Mr. Putin and that of Mr. Medvedev. These differences have to be taken into account when analyzing Russian-American relations.

Lessons of the Live Microphone Incident

The accident with the microphone also demonstrated yet again another lesson about the making and implementation of foreign policy. Discussions about the international system may carry on, but this incident shows the favorite to win the November 2012 presidential election, the incumbent President Obama, how important domestic internal political concerns and the international environment are in the making of foreign policy. On the other hand, he gave a hint that he envisaged developing good relations with Russia, which indicates that he intends to carry on with the line which he has followed ever since he took office in 2008.

To conclude, in the short term foreign policy differences may come to the fore in American-Russian relations, as we have seen in Syria. But if the U.S. takes care to respect Russian sensitivities as it has done in the past (e.g. when it began to cooperate with Russia over Afghanistan after the signing of the START treaty or the opening of the way for sanctions against Iran), it is possible to envisage cooperation on critical issues. Viewed from this angle, the disagreement over the missile shield system which today appears to be an almost insurmountable crisis could perhaps be eliminated by mutually-agreed upon steps, which other developments in the international arena have rendered necessary.

Habibe Ozdal
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies

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JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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