The President of the United States, Barack Obama has announced on September 17, a major shift in the policy of the US concerning the deployment of anti-ballistic missile defenses in Central and Eastern Europe in order to protect its European allies from a possible Iranian threat. In this article I will argue that this move is a part of a larger strategy of retrenchment, designed to make American power more flexible and adaptable in an international system defined both by symmetrical and asymmetrical threats. The move does not signal by any means a waning of America’s commitment to Europe’s security or for that matter, the security of Central and Eastern Europe. Canceling the deployment of the Ground Based Interceptors in Poland and the X band radar in the Czech Republic does not mean the United States is giving up on creating a national missile defense capability.
President Barack Obama’s arguments for this shift in policy are based on two factors. First it appears that a reassessment of the Iranian threat and its implications has been carried out by the American intelligence community and a conclusion has been reached that the threat posed by Iran’s missiles is not as great as it was first estimated. Rather than investing in expensive technologies to counter an Iranian threat that has yet to materialize, the administration is investing in capabilities that are able to deal with this threat now or in the near future. The second factor that influenced the administration’s decision on European missile defense deals with the technology available at this moment to the United States to counter the threat of Iranian missiles to Europe and the way in which to respond to it. The United States is confident enough that the current technology at its disposal is potent enough to deal with Iran’s missiles. It is also confident enough that Iranian missile technology is not as advanced as it was once thought and it has yet to produce the long range ballistic missiles required to reach Western and Central Europe. Rather than countering a capability that Iran does not posses the US is now targeting Iran’s medium and short range ballistic missiles. Furthermore the United States would like to introduce a level of uncertainty in its relationship with Iran, and this shift in strategy does exactly this.
This new approach on ballistic missile defenses is consistent with promises made during the 2008 US presidential campaign, during which Barack Obama pledged that it will re-evaluate the plans for the development and deployment of the anti-ballistic capabilities. It appears that such an evaluation has taken place and has led to a policy shift concerning the deployment of elements of the American missile shield in Europe. Such a move was expected and has not come as a complete surprise to the Czech and Polish governments. On the other hand the United States is not giving up on the development of a national integrated anti-missile defense system. The 2010 defense budget provides funding for further development of such a capability.
Poland and the Czech Republic should not view the canceling of the deployment of the ground-based interceptors and of the X band radar on their territories as a signal that the United States is not interested anymore in guaranteeing their security. Indeed for some members of the Czech and Polish political elites, this shift in the American security strategy was a bitter pill to swallow. These countries are staunch American allies in Europe and have provided political and military support during the US intervention in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq and display strong pro-American feelings at the societal level. Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said American plans not to deploy elements of the ballistic missile shield in Europe “is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence”. Equally bitter feelings were expressed by former Polish president and leader of the Solidarność movement, Lech Walesa, who stated that “The Americans have always only taken care of their own interests and they have used everyone else.” On the other hand both Polish and Czech publics were not convinced of the necessity of deploying anti-ballistic missiles in their countries and large majorities of these countries’ citizens opposed American plans to deploy BMD defenses.
For the Poles the news that the United States was not going to deploy anti-ballistic missile in their country came at a bad moment, as the country was commemorating 70 years to the day since the Soviet Union had invaded Poland. For many Poles and Czechs the deployment of American anti-ballistic missiles on their countries’ territories was a guarantee against Russia extending its influence in Central and Eastern Europe. However despite the canceling of the deployment of the ground based interceptors and of the X-band radar, it is likely that Poland and the Czech Republic received some sort of political and military compensation from the United States. The US cannot ignore these countries’ military and political contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore the United States has not given up completely on the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, instead of ten ground based interceptors it will deploy starting in 2015 mobile ground based Standard SM-3 missiles which can deal with Iranian short range ballistic missiles. According to the American Secretary of Defense, Robert S. Gates talks have been initiated with both Polish and Czech governments to deploy on their territories Standard SM-3 missiles from 2015 onwards.
What does this American shift in strategy concerning missile defense mean for Russia? Superficially it seems a great victory for Russian diplomatic intransigence on the issue of ballistic missile defenses in Europe. Russia was opposed from the very beginning to the deployment of ground based interceptors and the radar supporting them in Poland and the Czech Republic as it meant that the US was projecting power very close to what Moscow defines as its “near abroad” – the former Soviet Space. Technically 10 missile interceptors and a radar station were not much of a military threat, given the large Russian nuclear tipped ICBM arsenal. However it established the dangerous precedent of US projecting power in Central and Eastern Europe very close to Ukraine. Furthermore the X band radar that should have been installed in the Czech Republic peered deep into Russian territory and could have been used to give advanced warnings to NORAD if the Kremlin ever decided to launch an ICBM. It is also apparent the Russians feared that US could have installed nuclear warheads on the ground-based interceptors and used them as a first strike weapon. However this current shift in American strategy does not spell the end for missile defense in Europe. The US will deploy in the near future anti-ballistic missiles from its Aegis equipped cruisers and destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea. Furthermore the US will eventually deploy Standard SM-3 missiles in Poland and Czech Republic from 2015 onwards and will install a radar facility in the Caucasus. Although the Obama administration has promised cooperation with Russia on the BMD issue, the presence of American military hardware in the Caucasus will not go down very well in Moscow.
On the diplomatic front Russia is forced now by the United States to make up its mind on the Iranian question. The Russians have not been very keen on strengthening the sanctions regime against Iran because of American support for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO and the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Central and Eastern Europe. The American change of strategy on the deployment of BMD defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic actually puts pressure on the Kremlin to take action against Iran on the nuclear matter. If the Russians actually continue to support Iran, as they did before the American announcement of September 17, the US will begin taking retaliatory measures against the Kremlin. Russia therefore should not gloat too much over the American decision not to deploy BMD elements in Central and Eastern Europe.
Will this shift in strategy concerning missile defense mean less US commitment to European security? Actually no. It will open up more opportunities of engagement between the Europeans and the United States in security matters, in a time where US diplomacy is perceived as being more concerned with the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the challenge of the rising powers of China and India. Furthermore by concentrating on the threat posed by short range and medium range Iranian missiles, the United States will deepen its commitment to European defense.
Conclusion: The United States has not given up on its plans of deploying ballistic missile defenses in Europe. It has however shifted its strategy on this issue in order to gain leverage at the negotiations table concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to respond to more immediate threats. It appears that this shift in American strategy is a part of a policy of retrenchment and as such it is fraught with risks and inherent dangers. However if this policy of retrenchment succeeds it will increase the security of the United States and that of its allies.