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The Kremlin hails US cancellation of anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe

By Temuri Kiguradze
Monday, September 21
The Russian Government has welcomed the decision of the US authorities to alter their plan to install anti-missile systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. Moscow declared this step “pragmatic,” adding that it will not, in its turn, deploy Iskander ballistic missile systems in the Russian European region of Kaliningrad.

Tensions concerning anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe sharpened after the US withdrawal from the US-Soviet anti-missile defence treaty in 2002. George W. Bush’s administration soon announced plans to establish anti-missile complexes and radars in the Czech Republic and Poland to protect the US and NATO countries from the threat of Iranian attacks. Moscow assessed these plans to be a “direct threat to Russia’s security” and stated that it would therefore deploy its own ballistic missiles in regions close to Poland and the Czech Republic.

The new administration in the White House has changed US policy towards Russia and announced a “reset” of Russian-American relations. Washington officially confirmed the cancellation of the East European anti-missile plans on September 17, but noted that this did not mean that the US will stop protecting itself from the threat of Iranian attacks. Under its revised plan the United States will initially deploy missile interceptors on ships and then land-based defence systems, however the exact locations of those systems have yet to be announced. Speaking at a press conference on September 18, the US General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that Caucasus region may be considered as the location of a radar station which will track possible rocket launches.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates stated that the change of plan was not the result of Russian pressure on the White House. “Russia's attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the President on this issue. Of course, considering Russia's past hostility toward American missile defence in Europe, if Russia's leaders embrace this plan, then that will be an unexpected change of policy on their part," he said, as quoted by Reuters on September 19. "This proposal is, simply put, a better way forward. I believe this is a very pragmatic proposal," Gates said, adding that the new plan was a hedge against a missile threat from Iran, not Russia.

The Polish and Czech authorities and media have mostly reacted negatively to the US decision. Polish President Lech Kaczynski has said that he is concerned that Obama's new strategy leaves Poland in a dangerous "grey zone" between Western Europe and the old Soviet sphere, “Poland de facto loses its strategic alliance with Washington without the missile defence system,” a senior official with the Polish administration said, as quoted by the Associated Press.

“I wouldn’t say that this is the rejection of the anti-missile systems. President Obama has clearly announced that the US has reviewed the threat from Iran and now considers that its middle and short range missiles are more dangerous for the US and European Security than long range ballistic missiles,” stated Georgian political analyst and former Georgian Ambassador to Russia Zurab Abashidze, speaking to The Messenger on September 20. He stated that the consideration of new threats has provoked the need for the creation of new systems that are mobile.

“However, of course this step is also a sign of the “reset” in Russian-American relations and Washington expects some kind of reply from Moscow. The first response has already been made, with Russia refusing to deploy the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, however I think that the US expects more from Russia, in part a review of its relations with Iran,” stated Abashidze, noting that the US step is “not a weakness” and means that Washington is ready for dialogue which may have practical consequences for the situation in Georgia.

Abashidze refused to comment on the possibility that Georgia could become a location for the anti-missile systems due to its close geographical proximity to Iran, however he noted that the radar station in the Azerbaijan region of Gabala, which is now under Russia’s management, may be used for that purpose.