Russia takes a softer tone on missile deployment

BERLIN — Russia seems to be testing the ground for a shift in policy, which could emerge at the annual gathering in Munich on security policy that two years ago was the forum used by then-President Vladimir Putin to take a much harsher tone with the West and announce Moscow’s hard-nosed return as a force in international affairs.

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But with the Russian economy reeling from the collapse in oil prices, Putin, now prime minister, was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, sounding conciliatory.

According to a defense source cited by the Interfax news agency, Russia may even be reconsidering its threat to deploy new missiles near Kaliningrad in response to a U.S. antimissile system that would be based in Eastern Europe. That may be a trial balloon to see how the new U.S administration and the Europeans will respond, particularly when governments on both sides of the Atlantic are preoccupied with the global financial crisis rather than pouring billions into new defense systems.

Trial balloon or not, Russia’s stance — and Putin’s explicit offer at Davos of cooperation — will be welcomed by some West European governments, mulled over by President Barack Obama’s administration and viewed with considerable suspicion by some East European countries.

«We would be very concerned if the Americans wanted to go it alone in conciliatory gestures with Russia,» said Jiri Schneider, program director of the Prague Security Studies Institute. «There would be a lot of bad feeling here if that took place over our heads.»

Poles are taking a more practical view. «You could argue that if the U.S. and Russia did really improve relations, then there might be less of a need for the missile defense system,» said Alexander Smolar, director of the Stefan Batory Foundation on Warsaw.

Poland’s center-right government, led by Donald Tusk, has already pushed missile defense quietly to the side, say security experts.

«Warsaw knows that the Obama administration is less enthusiastic about missile defense than the Bush team,» said Zdzislaw Lachowski, defense expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. If the Warsaw government «does not get missile defense, it will not be so concerned. It can live without it. What matters is that is obtains an air-defense system.»

Tusk held talks with Putin on Thursday in Davos, where the main issue was not, unusually, missile defense but, after the recent Russian-Ukraine energy dispute and cutoff of gas supplies to Europe, energy security. «Missile defense is not Poland’s No.1 priority now. It is the economy and energy,» said Lachowski.

It is a measure of how much the financial crisis has changed things. Less than three months ago, President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia, delivering his first state-of-the-nation address hours after Obama had been elected, threw down the gauntlet to the incoming administration.

Medvedev threatened to deploy short-range, high-precision tactical missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, two NATO members, if the United States went ahead in deploying the antiballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

It did not matter at the time that Russia had insufficient missiles to base in Kaliningrad.

«It was pure bluff, which Putin would use as a bargaining chip,» said Schneider. «Now the Kremlin is using that bluff as if to show it is making concessions. The West should not fall for this and allow Russia to have a veto on what can or cannot be based on our territory.»

Some West European countries with close ties to the Kremlin have opposed a U.S. military presence in Poland and the Czech Republic and would most likely welcome any Russian gesture to defuse tensions, even if they were largely started by the Kremlin in the first place.

Germany has claimed that the missile defense system would trigger a new arms race. That was a theme Putin took up in a startling speech to the 2007 Munich Security Conference, where, as the Russian president, he spoke of a new Cold War and the emergence of a stronger, more assertive Russia that the West would have to stop ignoring and start taking seriously.

Others, notably the Poles, Czechs and other former Communist nations, have seen a resurgent Russia as a country unafraid to use the wealth and clout generated by high energy prices. This partly explains why Warsaw and Prague sought a U.S. military presence — a security umbrella beyond the guarantees of either NATO or the EU.

Now, it is far from certain that Washington will pursue missile defense.

The Democrats generally have been less than enthusiastic about missile defense because of its expense and because the system has not yet been fully tested. Much depends on what the Russians say in Munich next week, where several high-ranking Americans will be listening, among them Vice President Joe Biden; the national security adviser, General James Jones; and the special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke.

If the result is rapprochement between Washington and Moscow, it might give Obama’s administration an elegant way out of the commitment to deploy interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic.

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DEL