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Analysis & Opinion
09.02.10 Et Tu, Brute?
By Tom Balmforth

As the United States unveiled plans to install missile interceptors in Romania to shield Europe from an alleged Iranian missile threat, Moscow’s suspicions became palpable. A little more than a fortnight ago Washington agreed to deploy Patriot missiles in Poland, only 100 kilometers from Russia’s border at Kaliningrad. The new installation in Romania will bring the United States into the strategically important Black Sea region. Missile deployment is a long-time explosive issue for U.S.-Russian relations, but this time Russia won’t be the only one raising an eyebrow.

On Friday, ahead of the Munich Security Conference, Romanian President Traiain Basescu announced that Romania will host U.S. Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) tactical interceptors, which should become operational by 2015. American officials added that SM-3s would also be stationed on Aegis-equipped ships in the Black Sea. Russia’s reaction was typical. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately demanded “clarification,” and the Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin accused Washington of failing to come through on its promise to keep Moscow informed about missile defense in Europe. So is this project really out of the blue?

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision in June of last year to shelve plans for ground missile interceptor systems in Poland and Czech Republic – an anathema to the Kremlin – created a foundation on which the “reset” relations could be established. However, Obama never entirely abandoned plans for deploying missile systems in Eastern Europe – he merely revised them. And Romania was mentioned in that breath. To that extent, the current plans to install SM-3 interceptors in Romania come as no surprise, especially given the increasing congressional pressure that Obama is facing for having “conceded to Russia” on the Poland and Czech Republic missile defense system, without much progress to show for it on Iran.

But still, the timing is not ideal.

U.S. and Russian negotiators are yet to sign off on an elusive replacement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired on December 5. Moscow has delighted in blaming the United States for the delay. Toward the end of last year, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that it was Washington that was delaying the process by persisting with its missile plans in Eastern Europe. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov hauled out the very same argument last Saturday in response to the Romania plans: “It is impossible to talk seriously about the reduction of nuclear capabilities when a nuclear power is working to deploy protective systems against vehicles to deliver nuclear warheads possessed by other countries.”

But Alexander Rahr, the program director for Russia and Eurasia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, dismissed the hypothesis. “These are very small range weapons. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) cannot be threatened by these smaller rockets at all. They are not strategic in nature, so I don’t think they should jeopardize a new START,” said Rahr. Viktor Yesin, a retired Russian colonel general, told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta news daily that the SM-3 missiles only have a combat range of 300 kilometers, but that they could be potentially upgraded to a range of between 500 and 1,000 kilometers.

But Rahr said the real negative impact from these SM-3s was that their deployment would foster an atmosphere of “mistrust.” And Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, agreed: “re-injecting this issue into discussion when these important talks are going on can make them more difficult than before.” The various ongoing attempts to rekindle relations between Russia and NATO after a fall-out over the Russia-Georgia conflict could well also suffer as a result, said Lukyanov.

But it is mainly the strategic positioning of the missiles in the Black Sea that will elicit objection, he said. When Warsaw on January 20 announced that Poland would still host U.S. Patriot missiles and this time only 100 kilometers from Kaliningrad, Russia responded with a surprisingly muted reaction. But the planned deployment of SM-3s on the Black Sea will be a different story. “Any activities in and near the Black Sea make Russia very nervous – this is a region which is very sensitive for Russian security and has been for many centuries,” said Lukyanov.

Ever since Peter the Great made establishing Russia as a naval power a key tenet of his rule, securing Russian access to a warm water port has remained a goal. “The Black Sea used to be the direction of Russian expansion a couple of centuries ago – Russian expansion southward, especially to former Byzantium, was an ideological pillar of Russian foreign policy in the 19th century – that was the dream: to control the straights,” said Lukyanov.

So, symbolically, the Black Sea is key to Russia’s view of itself as a global naval power, and U.S. missiles in its vicinity will be unnerving for Moscow, especially considering the question mark over the status of its Black Sea Fleet stationed in the Ukrainian Crimea, where the lease is due to expire in 2017.

At the Munich Conference, Ivanov made his objections perfectly clear when he referred to the Montreux Treaty signed in 1936, which supposedly limits the presence of outside powers in the Black Sea. But Russia is not the only country likely to possibly challenge the U.S. presence. “I think we can expect a huge diplomatic game around this idea of the Black Sea – and the participants in the game will not be just the United States and Russia and Ukraine, but also Turkey, for instance,” said Lukyanov.

Turkey is showing much more confidence on the international stage than ten years ago, said Lukyanov. Moreover, Russian-Turkish relations have looked to be strengthening recently, as the prime ministers of the two countries signed in a host of cooperative measures in the energy sphere on January 13, which included Turkey giving its preliminary go-ahead for construction of the Turkish leg of Russia’s South Stream pipeline. What is more, Turkey is “extremely concerned” by plans touted by the U.S. Senate to recognize the “Armenian genocide” in 1915 in the near future – “maybe this will happen this year, maybe not – but it is on the agenda,” said Lukyanov. “If the United States does go ahead with this, then its relationship with Turkey will be disturbed profoundly…All of this creates an interesting knot of contradictions,” he added.

However, what will anger Moscow most is that it was not previously consulted about Washington’s plans in Romania and the Black Sea. Russia argues that “unilaterally” installing missile defense systems in Europe is a threat to regional stability and, to that end, Russia champions jointly-built “multilateral” missile systems.

Despite the reset, this clearly remains wishful thinking. “To create a multilateral system in such a delicate, sensitive area as strategic national security, the parties need to have a high degree of mutual confidence, which is not case with the United States and Russia at the moment,” concluded Lukyanov.
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