Afghanistan might have been the most prominent topic discussed at this week’s summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but the 28 NATO leaders also addressed an equally delicate issue - deployment of a ballistic missile defense shield in Europe that is strongly opposed by Russia.
Newly inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin had been invited to attend the summit in Chicago, but decided to stay home and send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead - a move widely attributed to the missile defense issue.
The United States and its NATO allies say the defense shield is designed to protect Europe against a possible missile strike by countries such as Iran. Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have said the anti-missile system, when deployed, could neutralize Moscow’s strategic missile force, leaving Russia vulnerable to the West.
In 2009, President Barack Obama shelved a Bush administration proposal to station 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic.
Experts say the new Obama plan is more flexible. It would deploy a system of anti-missile interceptors based at sea on destroyers and cruisers, coupled with advanced land-based versions, some of which would be based in former Warsaw Pact countries.
Following the NATO summit, President Obama thanked the allies who are contributing to the defense system.
“Our defense radar in Turkey will be placed under NATO control. Spain, Romania and Poland have agreed to host key U.S. assets,” President Obama said. “The Netherlands will be upgrading radars, and we look forward to contributions from other allies.”
Mr. Obama took the opportunity to again emphasize that the missile defense system is not aimed at Russia. “Since the system is neither aimed at nor undermines Russia’s strategic deterrent, I continue to believe that missile defense can be an area of cooperation with Russia,” he said.
Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at Princeton University and New York University, says the missile defense issue at the Chicago summit was the reason President Putin decided to stay home.
“He doesn’t want to give any symbolic, at this crucial moment, sense that he is acquiescing to what remains the very hard American line on missile defense,” Cohen says. “Missile defense is now officially a NATO program discussed at the NATO summit in Chicago. It would look bad for Putin schmoozing [chatting] it up with Obama at the very moment that the United States and NATO are congratulating themselves on the continued expansion of missile defense.”
John Parker, a Russia expert with the National Defense University [expressing his own views] says the Russian leadership has a stake in criticizing the missile defense plans.
Parker says the Russian government’s military budget will grow substantially between now and 2020, and that “there are a lot of lobbies that want their piece of that military budget pie. And so it’s in their interest to play up this threat, so that they get the money to build the weapons that presumably will counter that threat,” Parker says.
Experts do not expect Moscow and Washington to resolve their differences over missile defense any time soon. They say that at the earliest, progress might be possible next year after the U.S. presidential election.