Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer confirmed Sept. 17 that the United States no longer plans to install ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Poland. BMD in Central Europe has been a sticky issue between the United States and Russia. But an even trade — U.S. BMD plans for Russian support on Iran — is not so clear.
There has been confirmation that the United States has scrapped its plans for ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Poland and Czech Republic, according to an announcement from Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer Sept 17. There was a flurry of meetings with a U.S. delegation — including Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Alexander Vershbow — in Poland and Czech Republic. U.S. President Barack Obama held a phone call with Fischer. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is preparing to have a meeting with Russia's NATO envoy, Dmitri Rogozin. And Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov — who is one of the country's specialists on the issue of BMD — is in Poland. The issue of BMD has long been one of the larger points of contention between the United States and Russia. Russia viewed the U.S. intentions to set up missiles on its former Soviet border as a serious encroachment in Moscow's sphere of influence. Washington constantly reassured Moscow that the missile system was not targeting Russia, but was to guard against Iran's growing military capabilities. But for Moscow, it was not as much about the BMD system as it was having U.S. military presence in Central Europe. Russia saw this as the United States moving their presence east from Germany into former Warsaw pact territory — Poland and Czech Republic — not to mention U.S. lily-pad bases popping up in Romania. The U.S. military moves in Central Europe were part of the overall encroachment viewed by Russia in which NATO had expanded to the Baltics, and then the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia came under NATO membership consideration. Russia also had just watched a wave of pro-Western (and Western-backed) color revolutions sweep across its former territory in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. But Russia has been pushing back on the West's influence, turning the political tide in Ukraine, with its August 2008 war with Georgia, solidifying its influence in Central Asia and the rest of the Caucasus and also in warming relations with Germany, and to a lesser extent, Poland. As part of its push back on the United States, Russia increased its support for countries like Iran — one of the largest thorns in Washington's side. Russia has been helping build Iran's nuclear power plant, Bushehr, even though Moscow has not completed its contract on the plant to keep the issue alive as part of their arsenal of threats against the United States. The same goes for Russia's military contracts with Iran for advanced military technology like variants of the S-300 air defense system. Russia has also routinely blocked hard-hitting sanctions on Iran in the U.N. Security Council. But the situation with Iran has been heating up in the past few months and the United States has been considering everything from crippling sanctions on Iranian gasoline to a military strike. The problem has been that Russia could complicate either move by either skirting the sanctions and providing their own gasoline to Iran or providing military equipment to Iran, which would complicate a potential U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran. The Russian demands for not complicating the Iranian dilemma have been simple: concessions from the United States on respecting Russia's sphere of influence — which includes backing down on NATO expansion, its relationship with Kiev and Tbilisi, and military expansion in Poland and the Czech Republic. According to statements from the Czechs and other political moves, the United States appears to have folded on the BMD issue. But an even trade — U.S. BMD plans for Russian support on Iran — is not so clear. There are many issues that STRATFOR is now watching:
First, the most important question is if this is enough of a concession for Russia. Russia is very concerned with U.S. support of NATO expansion as well as its support of the governments in Kiev and Tbilisi. Also, the United States appears to be backing off BMD, but does this include their other military plans in Central Europe, like helping build up Poland's military? The BMD deal in Poland was not just about missile defense. It was also an overall plan for U.S. military inside the country, including ramping up Poland's defensive military capabilities. Russia sees all of these issues interlinked and will not be satisfied with just a concession on the BMD issue.
With a concession on BMD and pending any confirmation on further U.S. concessions with Poland, Ukraine and Georgia, Russia is expected to drop its support of Iran. But Russia will act cautiously in relinquishing its valuable Iran card completely, so how will Russia show its side of the concessions to the United States? Will Russia also now become involved in the U.S.'s plans for sanctions against Iran or simply cease fulfilling its contracts on Iran's nuclear program and military?
How does Iran react to a possible U.S.-Russia entente? Tehran has never believed that Moscow would not sell it out should the United States offer the right price. Iran and Russia have held a tense alliance in recent years. But with U.S. pressure bearing down even further on Iran, how does Iran react to losing one of its biggest supporters? What are the alternatives for Iran without Russian backing?
How does the rest of the Eurasia region see the U.S. fold on support for Poland and the Czech Republic? Much of Europe — especially the Central and Eastern regions — will now view the United States as unable to fulfill its promises to its allies in the face of a strengthening Russia. The ripples across Eurasia will be deeply felt in the domestic politics of these countries — in their relations with one another and with outside powers — and with Russia also gaining the momentum from the U.S. concession to push further within and beyond its sphere of influence.