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Obama and US-Russia Tensions

December 14, 2008

Editor’s Note: The following article was written by two analysts from an international organization. However, given the political sensitivity of NATO expansion and anti-missile deployments, we are publishing the article anonymously at their request:

With U.S.-Russian relations already at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, President-elect Barack Obama has picked two key foreign policy officials who are likely to continue the Bush administration’s confrontational policies that have aggravated Russia and disrupted European security alignments and transatlantic relations.

Incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are major proponents of two U.S. initiatives, which are deepening divisions between the U.S. and Russia, as well as between the U.S. and its traditional European allies. The issues are NATO expansion and promotion of the Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense system.

Keen on playing the role of mediator, French President Nikolas Sarkozy – who also holds the presidency of the European Union – recently endorsed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for “a new security architecture” for the continent that is intended, at least in part, to counter NATO expansion and the U.S. missile defense system being developed on Russia’s border.

Both NATO expansion and the anti-missile system are fiercely opposed by Moscow and are highly controversial in Europe, reopening some continental divisions that were seen in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq – between “Old Europe,” generally Western European nations that oppose isolating Russia, and “New Europe,” namely Great Britain and Eastern European nations that are backing the United States.

As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made clear following a recent NATO summit, Germany would continue to oppose rapid NATO membership for the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine.

Steinmeier also described the tensions between Europe and Russia in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war in August as an “unnecessary domestic European conflict.”

NATO Expansion

On the thorny issue of NATO expansion – and its mutual-defense umbrella – many consider Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as a sign that the U.S. will continue pushing ahead with its efforts for rapid membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

Analysts note that the idea of NATO expansion has its roots in Bill Clinton’s administration, which reversed the first Bush administration’s policy of treating Moscow with caution. President Clinton moved quickly to expand the alliance eastward into areas that Russia had long considered its sphere of influence.

In January 1994, Clinton announced it was no longer a question of if NATO would expand but when. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all became NATO members in March 1999, and five years later, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia followed.

Hillary Clinton has indicated that her approach toward Russia and NATO will largely be an extension of her husband’s. As senator she voted in favor of NATO expansion and co-sponsored a resolution in favor of NATO entry for Ukraine and Georgia.

She also has articulated a global role for the United States that is based on “American pre-eminence,” the prevailing ideology of the second Bush administration in seeking to maintain a uni-polar world dominated by Washington.

Russian leaders have challenged this notion in favor of a multi-polar world in which other powers, such as Russia, would have an equal say. On this point, Moscow has sympathy from many other nations that agree the concept of “American pre-eminence” is obsolete and unhelpful in dealing with current challenges.

Regarding U.S.-Russian relations in general, Hillary Clinton has advocated a nuanced approach that doesn’t necessarily view the Russian Federation as an adversary, but stops short of treating it as an equal.

Writing recently in Foreign Affairs. Sen. Clinton argued that the U.S. should “engage Russia selectively” on issues of “national importance,” but that this engagement should depend on “whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism.”

Those sorts of statements irritate Russians who associate “democracy” with the social and economic chaos of the 1990s. Last year, former President Vladimir Putin told the Munich Conference on Security Policy that statements such as Clinton’s reflect “ideological stereotypes, double standards and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking.”

Russia is “constantly being taught about democracy,” he said. “But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.” He criticized the United States for overstepping its national borders “in every way” and undemocratically imposing its “economic, political, cultural and educational policies” on other nations.

Gates and the Missile Shield

When it comes to the controversial – and expensive – project for a missile defense shield stationed along Russia’s border, Obama’s pick of Robert Gates for Defense Secretary may also signal a confrontational path ahead with the Russian Federation.

From his early career at the Central Intelligence Agency through his current position as Bush’s Defense Secretary, Gates has been a major proponent of the Star Wars missile defense system. With such a long record of advocacy, it is hard to imagine him switching his position now under Obama.

As deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s, Gates was known as an anti-Soviet hardliner and occasionally gave substantive policy speeches in favor of missile defense, a practice that was criticized at the time as inappropriate for an individual tasked with independent intelligence-gathering, not policy-making.

In 1986, for example, Gates gave a speech called “The Soviets and SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative],” in which he argued that the Soviets were far ahead of the U.S. in the development of strategic missile defense and that the United States had no choice but to invest heavily in its own program in order to catch up.

In the speech, Gates incorrectly predicted that the Soviets would launch their own missile defense system by the late 1980s. But even after the Soviet Union collapsed and his dire predictions of Soviet supremacy were exposed as farcical, Gates continued his support for the development of a U.S. missile defense system.

During his Senate confirmation hearings in 2006, Gates testified, “I have believed since the Reagan administration that if we can develop that kind of capability [missile defense], it would be a mistake for us not to, and especially when we now have several dozen countries that either have or are developing ballistic missiles, and you have at least two or three that are developing longer-range missiles.” 

Following his confirmation as Defense Secretary, Gates lobbied European governments on the wisdom of deploying a missile defense system to protect against possible attacks from rogue states. In April 2007, he traveled with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Europe in an effort to persuade governments to support the missile system.

Rice and Gates, as part of this European lobbying effort, co-signed an article for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, writing that 16 years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S., Europe and Russia are facing common security threats.

“One of the most threatening of these challenges is the possibility that a dangerous state will deploy ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, and take our citizens hostage – or inflict worse on them,” the two wrote. “Do not deceive yourselves: This is a real threat.”

Gates seemed to be trying to reassure Russia that the U.S. was only concerned about a threat from so-called “rogue states,” but in the past he has made clear that he considers the offensive capabilities of Russia and other former Soviet states as a top justification for the missile defense system.

In 1992 congressional testimony, for example, Gates stated that “Only China and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the former Soviet Union, have the missile capability to reach U.S. territory directly.”

However, Gates’s current position – expressed as recently as Nov. 13 – is that “Russia has nothing to fear from a defensive missile shield.”

Those reassurances have not quieted the concerns of Russian leaders, who see the deployment of the U.S.-backed missile shield in Eastern Europe as a provocative move that could reduce the deterrent effect of Russia’s missile force.

Dubious Benefit

Some prominent academics agree, arguing that the American missile shield could disrupt the existing equilibrium among nuclear powers.

The University of California’s Robert Powell has said a national missile defense “would give the United States somewhat more freedom of action and make a rogue state more likely to back down in a crisis,” but it also could increase the risk of a nuclear attack on the United States by contributing to “a greater U.S. willingness to press its interests harder in a crisis.”

In other words, because the United States may feel that it and its allies are less vulnerable to missile attacks, Washington may act more aggressively, possibly touching off a conflict that might otherwise be averted.

Besides its dubious strategic benefit, there is also the technological question of whether the system works at all. While the Defense Department points to several “successful tests” as proof of its ability to intercept missiles, at least some of these tests have turned out to be rigged.

In some tests, the Pentagon has equipped the target missiles with global positioning satellite beacons to make them easier to intercept -- or doesn't deploy countermeasures that would confuse an anti-missile missile -- and thus the tests generate press reports about successes in the costly program.

Despite doubts and controversies, the missile defense project continues to move forward. There are now a total of 21 missile interceptors fielded in Alaska and California, and the Bush administration has solidified plans for stationing 10 missile interceptors in Poland and missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic by 2014.

The missile defense program has received $110 billion in federal money since its inception in 1983 and today is the Pentagon’s single biggest procurement program. Some have criticized it as being a huge boondoggle, with several defense contractors and lobbyists involved in missile defense recently pleading guilty on corruption charges related to the program.

Yet even considering the staggering economic costs of the program, the diplomatic costs may be higher. The insistence on moving ahead with missile defense compelled the Bush administration to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2001, in a major reversal of longstanding U.S. policy.

For 30 years, Soviet leaders and their Russian successors had viewed the ABM treaty as the cornerstone of strategic stability. The treaty upheld the central pillar of nuclear deterrence by guaranteeing that a first strike would be met with an overwhelming retaliatory response, the so-called doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

For this reason, Moscow has always been opposed to the Star Wars plan, seeing it as a camouflaged attempt to achieve strategic supremacy for the United States.

Obama Flip-Flop?

Early on in his presidential campaign, Obama promised to “end misguided defense policies” and in particular “cut investments in unproven missile defense systems,” but he has since modified that pledge with statements ambiguously endorsing missile defense.

He said, for example, at the first presidential debate with John McCain, “I actually believe that we need missile defense because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons.”

Obama didn’t offer any specifics on what sort of missile defense system may be needed or where it should be stationed, leaving it open to interpretation whether his reference was to missile defense in Eastern Europe or elsewhere.

His campaign’s Web site made no mention of a missile defense shield on Russia’s border, offering only a vague promise of “continuing U.S. cooperation with Israel in the development of missile defense systems.”

Nevertheless, after Obama’s election, Medvedev toughened Moscow’s stand against the U.S. anti-missile plan in Poland and the Czech Republic by threatening to position Russian missiles near the Polish border.

“We might reverse this decision,” Medvedev said, “if the new U.S. administration is going to once again review and analyze all the consequences of its decisions to deploy missiles and radars.”

But with Obama’s tapping of Robert Gates as Defense Secretary it is hard to imagine any major shift on the issue of missile defense. This is also the case when it comes to Hillary Clinton regarding U.S. support for rapid NATO membership for former Soviet states.

As Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign relations committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, recently said, “These nominations inspire no optimism whatsoever.”

Combined with Medvedev’s threats to deploy missiles close to the Polish border, it is clear that Russia’s patience on these issues is wearing thin.

While Obama may be focused more on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he soon may find himself dealing with a resurgent Russia – angered by what it sees as provocations – and a European continent divided over fundamental security arrangements and the very nature of the transatlantic partnership.

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