After 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.