This Week - the Russian bear growls

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With parliamentary elections scheduled next Sunday in Russia, the Russian bear is growling. President Dmitry Medvedev struck out last week against the U.S. plans for a missile defense system across Europe, warning that Russia might pull out of the New START treaty, and announcing a series of counter-measures. In televised remarks, he notably said that an early warning radar station in Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad had been placed on combat alert and again threatened to deploy Iskander short-range missiles there as a deterrent. He also threatened to move offensive weapons systems close to European borders.


Russia has long expressed opposition to the land- and sea-based system which is to replace the Bush-era plan and which according to Obama administration officials is to defend against missiles from Iran. However Russia believes that the later phases of the system would undermine its strategic forces – something which the U.S. administration denies. The administration and Congress are firmly rejecting Russian demands for written guarantees.


Medvedev stated that “as legislators in some countries openly state, the whole system is against Russia.” This is something that came up during discussions earlier this month between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – the past and future president - with Western experts known as the Valdai Group. Putin informed his guests that an American Senator had told Russia’s ambassador to NATO that the missile defense system would target Russia, and that his generals said the same thing. (U.S. Valdai Group members said they doubted that any Senator had said any such thing).


The pro-Western Russian opposition has pointed out that Medvedev’s outburst came just before the elections to the Duma, and accused him of trying to drum up nationalist sentiment by inventing an external enemy. The White House and State Department have stood firm in rejecting any changes to the planned missile defense system, and dismissed Medvedev’s threat to withdraw from START.

But the latest harsh words from Medvedev signal that despite the much-vaunted “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations, a lack of trust continues to bedevil policy in both capitals. NATO-Russia talks on cooperation over the missile defense program are marking time.

 

BASIC Executive Director Paul Ingram is in Moscow this week talking to Russian experts and trying to separate the Cold War rhetoric from reality. He will try to ascertain, for example, if Russia really wants the United Kingdom, France and China to join the next round of arms reduction talks as the Russian foreign minister insists, what might Moscow be prepared to put on the table, and what will Moscow be looking for from the three? What are the chances of Russia compromising on its precondition for talks on the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons, i.e. that the estimated 200 U.S. weapons on European soil should be withdrawn before negotiations begin? NATO is looking for reciprocal measures from Russia when it considers further reductions in European deployments, including greater transparency – is that possible?


Above all, what are the chances for concrete progress on arms control in 2012, an election year in Russia, as well as in the United States?
 

These are the personal views of the author.

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