Russia Fires Warning Shot Over US Missile Plan

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Russia Fires Warning Shot Over US Missile Plan

Medvedev to site rockets in Kaliningrad enclave • Speech was delayed to coincide with poll result

by
Ian Traynor

An honour guard stands to attention as missile carriers rumble through Red Square, Moscow, in a return of the Victory Day parade. Two thirds of Czechs are against the establishment of US missiles in their country and the government has just been trounced in local elections that have shifted the balance of power in the Czech upper house. The scheme is strongly opposed by the social democratic opposition and may not survive the necessary parliamentary ratification process, which has been indefinitely shelved. (Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA)

Dmitri Medvedev is to go
to Washington next week for the first time as Russian president, with
the chances of a meeting with president-elect Barack Obama clouded by
his decision to station missiles in the heart of Europe.

Medvedev's
military announcement, in a speech delayed by a month in order to
coincide with the election of the new White House occupant, sent a
hostile message towards an Obama administration, aimed to sow friction
between European capitals and a new-look Washington, and sought to
intimidate the Poles and the Czechs, who are to host the bases for the
Pentagon's missile defence project.

Iskander-M short-range
missiles will be deployed in Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost
garrison, an isolated enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

The
Russian announcement was the sole menacing message amid a wave of
global optimism that accompanied the Democratic triumph in the US. Just
as western diplomats and analysts were suggesting relations between
Russia and the west, at their worst since the end of the cold war,
could improve, the Russian leader's salvo was seen as an unnecessary
challenge to Obama, who will be wary of appearing weak on national
security.

"It's pretty amazing stuff," said a European diplomat.
"The timing is gobsmacking. It will impact on the debate [on relations
with Russia]."

In Washington, Sean McCormack, a state department spokesman
for the Bush administration, said: "The steps that the Russian
government announced today are disappointing. But again [the missile
defence project] is not directed at them. Hopefully one day they'll
realise that."

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign
minister and a candidate for chancellor next year, said the Medvedev
message was badly timed, while Lithuania's president, Valdas Adamkus,
described it as "beyond comprehension".

Lithuania is leading a
losing battle within the EU to keep negotiations with Moscow frozen,
and is furious at what it sees as a British U-turn in favour of
resuming talks on a new strategic pact between the EU and Russia.
British officials confirmed yesterday that the government favoured
resuming talks with Moscow, which were suspended in September after the
UK strongly criticised Russia over the Georgia crisis. "The UK view is
that we want to get back to a position to pursue these negotiations,"
said a diplomat.

Medvedev, below, is also to travel to Nice
next week, where President Nicolas Sarkozy of France will host an
EU-Russia summit which is expected to restart the stalled negotiations
on the Russia-Europe pact. The UK diplomat added that the Medvedev
statement could strengthen support for Lithuania's anti-Russian line at
an EU summit today and at a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday in
Brussels.

The Czechs, Poles and others will be more inclined to
oppose talks with Russia, while the French, Germans, and Italians are
keen to restore relations with the Russians without conditions.

Coming
on top of last August's invasion and partition of Georgia by Russia,
and Medvedev's statement that he was not afraid of a new cold war, his
state-of-the-nation speech in the Kremlin appeared calculated to
inflame tensions with America at a time when much of the rest of the
world is relieved at the demise of the neoconservatives in Washington
and anticipating a more benign US administration.

The speech was
intended to scare Europeans into opposing the US missile defence bases
in Europe - silos for 10 ballistic missile interceptor rockets in
northern Poland, and a radar base south of Prague in the Czech Republic.

The
Russian tactic looks unlikely to impress the Americans nor intimidate
the Poles, who have bargained hard for security guarantees from the
Americans.

But Steinmeier indirectly criticised the US project,
warning against a new arms race in Europe, and the Czechs are in a much
more precarious position.

The Czech government is keen to host
the missile base. But two thirds of Czechs are against it and the
government has just been trounced in local elections that have shifted
the balance of power in the Czech upper house. The scheme is strongly
opposed by the social democratic opposition and may not survive the
necessary parliamentary ratification process, which has been
indefinitely shelved.

Washington's worries about the fate of the
radar base were evident this week when General Henry Obering, the
outgoing chief of the Pentagon's missile defence agency, made a
farewell visit to Prague and told Czech journalists that the US had a
plan B for locating the base outside the republic, but was reluctant to
turn to another country.

The optimistic view among diplomats is
that Medvedev delivered his threat to clear the air while the Bush
administration is still in office, and that he is keen to pursue more
ambitious nuclear arms cuts with the incoming Obama team. Yesterday,
after his speech, the Kremlin announced that Medvedev had congratulated
Obama for winning the US presidency, saying by telegram he was
"counting on a constructive dialogue with you on the basis of trust and
taking each other's interests into account".

Medvedev is to make
his first presidential trip to Washington next week to take part in the
G20 summit on the global economic crisis. The Russian foreign ministry
said he could meet Obama on the margins of the summit.

Rocket men

March 1983
The American president, Ronald Reagan, launches the Strategic Defence
Initiative. Dubbed Star Wars, the SDI was to develop a missile shield
that would shelter the US from attack by intercontinental nuclear
ballistic missiles.

1991 End of the cold war leaves the initiative redundant.

1990s
The SDI is superseded by the National Missile Defence system, with
silos and facilities eventually sited in Alaska and California and
aimed across the Pacific Ocean, specifically to protect against a
potential attack by North Korea.

2002 The
Pentagon explores support in Poland and Czech Republic for first
missile defence sites outside the US - a radar tracking station south
of Prague and the stationing of 10 interceptor rockets in Poland, said
to counter possible ballistic missile attack by Iran.

July 2008 US and Czech governments sign agreement on radar station.

August 2008 US and Polish governments sign pact on interceptor rockets.

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