Shelved missile shield tests NATO unity

September 17, 2009

foghAfter just six weeks as NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has his first crisis. The alliance may be slowly bleeding in an intractable war in Afghanistan, but the immediate cause is the U.S. administration’s decision to shelve a planned missile shield due to have been built in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The shield, energetically promoted by former President George W. Bush, was designed to intercept a small number of missiles fired by Iran or some other “rogue state”. But Russia saw it as a threat to its own nuclear deterrent and NATO’s new east European members saw it as a useful deterrent against Russian bullying, by putting U.S. strategic assets on their soil.

President Barack Obama’s decision to drop plans to install it on Polish and Czech territory leaves those former Soviet satellites feeling betrayed — because they expended political capital to win parliamentary support — and more exposed to a resurgent Russia, especially after its use of force against Georgia last year.

Obama’s move is clearly part of a warming of U.S. relations with Moscow from which Washington hopes to gain help in return on supply routes to Afghanistan, pressure on Iran to rein in its nuclear programme, and an agreement on radical cuts in nuclear arsenals. But this “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations has only exacerbated the rift within NATO over Russia.

The three Baltic states and Poland were particularly critical of NATO’s low-key response to Moscow’s military action in Georgia. Some said the refusal of west European allies led by Germany and France to agree at a NATO summit last year to putting Georgia and Ukraine on a path to NATO membership emboldened the Kremlin to act. President Dimitry Medvedev’s harsh attack on Ukraine’s leader in an open letter last month fanned their fears of Russian bullying of its neighbours.

East European officials cite Moscow’s playing with the gas taps and trade disputes, and its apparent determination to keep its Black Sea fleet in the Crimean port of Odessa Sevastopol beyond a 2017 deadline agreed with Ukraine as part of a strategy of tension intended to reverse the “colour revolutions” in Kiev and Tbilisi, and bring other former Soviet republics to heel.

All that makes it a particularly awkward moment for Rasmussen to deliver his inaugural keynote speech on NATO-Russia relations on Friday in Brussels. The former Danish prime minister has put a few noses out of joint in his first weeks by making clear he intends to run NATO in a more results-oriented way, leaving less room and time for ambassadors in the North Atlantic Council to debate any idea to a standstill. He has set strict time-limits on council meetings, streamlined flabby agendas and outsourced the drafting of a new Strategic Concept to a group of 12 experts led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, on which not all allies are represented.

His personal management style and high media profile (monthly news conferences, a blog and Twitter chatter) has sharpened the traditional Kabuki dance in which a new boss and the old board flex their muscles at each other in mutual suspicion, insiders say. It is the first time a former prime minister, used to running a government and to talking to fellow national leaders, has been picked for the job. Previous secretaries-general were former defence or foreign ministers, more accustomed to being servants of the member nations.

Both camps within NATO (which privately brand each other the “Friends of Russia”, and the “Cold Warriors”) will be watching every word of Rasmussen’s Russia speech to ensure he does not depart from alliance policy. The fact is that NATO has been unable to agree on an overall policy towards Russia since the 1990s, when it declared that Moscow was no longer an adversary.

Rasmussen hopes to launch NATO’s own modest “reset” of ties with Russia, offering closer cooperation on Afghanistan, a joint threat assessment and work on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. NATO officials have received assurances that Moscow will respond positively and breathe new life into the NATO-Russia Council.

None of that will assuage NATO’s east European members, who are likely to press harder now for practical steps to give credibility to the alliance’s Article V mutual defence commitment. That could involve drafting military plans to reinforce the Baltic republics and Poland, and holding joint military exercises on those countries’ territory. The French and Germans have resisted such ideas in the past as unnecessarily provocative to Moscow. If NATO cannot agree to such moves, the United States may have to do more on its own to compensate its jilted friends.

(note: corrects Odessa to Sevastopol in 6th paragraph)


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