Russia continues to strongly oppose the U.S. plan to station a ballistic-missile defense system in Eastern Europe. That issue was discussed during the recent Moscow summit (July 6-8) between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev.
The Bush administration proposed a missile-defense system made up of 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic. U.S. officials say the system is needed to defend Europe and the United States against potential threats from countries such as Iran.
But the Russians have been strongly critical of the proposal, saying it is targeted against Moscow - a view rejected by U.S. officials. Moscow also sees the missile-defense system as the first step in a worldwide American missile-defense program.
Daryll Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says President Obama is more skeptical about the missile-defense system.
"The Obama administration is in the middle of a missile defense policy review that is not going to be completed until the end of the summer - perhaps later," he said. "The European missile defense proposal that the Russians are so concerned about has not been tested yet. This would involve a two-stage interceptor that is scheduled to be flight tested three times between now and the end of 2011. So the United States does not even know if the system works," he said.
The missile defense system was discussed during the recent Obama-Medvedev summit in Moscow. But analysts say the two sides did not narrow their differences. A joint statement issued at the end of the meeting said experts will continue to work together to analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century and will prepare appropriate recommendations.
Analysts say a key question is whether Russia will continue to insist missile defense be linked to the conclusion of an arms-control agreement. At the summit, the two sides agreed on the basic terms of a treaty to replace the START-One accord that expires in early December.
U.S. officials in the Bush administration insisted there was no linkage between offensive and defensive weapons. But a joint statement issued April 1 after the first meeting in London between presidents Obama and Medvedev said: "The relationship between offensive and defensive arms will be discussed by the two governments."
President Obama repeated that point during a press conference following the Moscow summit.
"On missile defense - we have agreed that we are going to continue to discuss this critical issue. That is part of the joint statements that we have signed. I also believe that it is entirely legitimate for our discussions to talk not only about offensive-weapons systems, but also defensive-weapons systems," he said.
Marshall Goldman, from Harvard University, says the U.S. position has moved closer to the Russian one.
"What surprised me, in fact, is that when he attained office, Obama did not denounce or back away from the idea of installing missiles in Poland, which is something I think he was quite critical of at one point," he said. "But he seems to say well at least we will leave this on the table, I would think maybe as a bargaining tool. Because I have the feeling he is skeptical of the whole process. But anyway, this enters into a kind of gamesmanship operation which is not always the kind of thing you want to see," said Goldman.
At the same press conference, President Medvedev - speaking through an interpreter - brought up the linkage issue.
"Some time ago, on this question, we had only differences. Now this linkage is being stated and this opens up the opportunity of bringing positions closer to each other," said the Russian president.
David Kramer was a former senior State Department official in the Bush administration (now with the German Marshall Fund in the United States). He also sees the U.S. position moving towards the Russian one.
"And this is going to raise eyebrows not only here in Washington, but it is going to raise eyebrows in Warsaw and Prague too. Obama will need to reassure those who are eager to push forward with missile defense," he said. "He will also have to reassure the Poles and the Czechs who I think are feeling a little nervous as to whether they are deemed bargaining chips and might be traded away in some efforts with the Russians. And also people will be focusing on some of the comments made by his officials before they went to Moscow when they said that missile defense would not be traded away," Kramer said.
Russian officials have been open in their linking of missile defense with arms control. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra just before the summit, President Medvedev said the two issues are - as he put it - interrelated.
Kramer says such a public stance could backfire since President Obama is not too enthusiastic about missile defenses in Eastern Europe.
"The Russians would have been much smarter if they did not continuously, publicly link missile defense with arms control, because they might have gotten the result they wanted anyway. But by continuously linking this in a public way and in taking a firm position on it, they make it much more difficult for him [Obama] to move away from sites in Poland and the Czech Republic," he said.
Kramer says Moscow's position presents a distinct problem for President Obama. Because while he is not a fervent supporter of missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, Kramer says he has to be very wary about being seen as caving in to Russian pressure.