Anti-missile row mars Russian-American thaw

Speaking in Washington, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has reiterated the need for cooperation over the US plans for a European missile shield. The issue is creating a widening chasm between the two nations.

­Washington maintains the shield is to protect against attacks from rogue states such as Iran, but Moscow is increasingly discontented with the plan. Russia wants legally binding guarantees that the system will not compromise its own security, but all the US is prepared to offer is its word on it.

Some experts explain Russia’s concern with promises in the past that were never fulfilled. For example, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow was assured that NATO would not expand towards its borders. But the alliance did, recruiting new members over two decades.

Russia insists that words are good, but words put on paper and properly signed and ratified are much better. Moscow wants the strategic balance in the world not to be tipped by the shield.

“Facts on the ground, that have been created on the basis of American national design of missile defense, which was not accepted by us as a reasonable way to respond to what is perceived as being the purpose of this anti-missile system. So we want to stick to the original agreement that there will be no parts of the system that would create risks for the strategic stability and for the potential in the strategic stability area, namely strategic arsenals of the participants of the system,” Lavrov said.

Russia has offered to build a missile shield in Europe with NATO, but that offer was turned down. NATO said Russia can participate, but it can’t be a joint project because Russia is not part of the alliance.

The shield is to have the whole of Europe covered. Romania was chosen as one of the locations for elements of the system, and the local population seems to be much less doubtful about the project, as compared to people in Poland and the Czech Republic, who protested against similar plans on their soil.

The vice-mayor of the Romanian village of Deveselu still cannot believe his luck. After Washington picked the place in Romania’s poorest region to locate a new radar base, locals have been all smiles about hypothetical investment.

“When we first heard that the US will build a radar base here, we were a little bit scared. But later we were informed that having this base here would mean better infrastructure and possibly jobs for us locals. The airbase in Deveselu was deserted for ages, now it will have a second chance,” he told RT.

The proposed base is to consist of radar facilities and interceptor rockets. It is scheduled to be built by 2015 and will become instrumental in President Obama’s European anti-missile defense shield.

In the 1950s, an airbase in the Romanian town of Deveselu was used by the Soviet forces. Now, with Washington’s plans to place a radar base there, locals have a joke: should Bucharest change its foreign policy again, the place will be occupied by the Chinese.

Similar plans were no joke for some in other European countries. Thousands in the Czech Republic and Poland protested against the initiative to have military bases on their soil, with mixed results. While the first line of interceptor missiles was eventually placed in Poland, the Czechs suddenly pulled out of the anti-missile defense plans. In Romania, there have been no demonstrations like that at all.

“There is a historic reason which makes Romania one of the most pro-American countries in the world. It has been explained to us by our older generations that bad things and the communists came from the East, so everybody expected the Americans to balance the whole thing. So there is this sentiment and feeling that the US presence is a counter-balance to the Russian presence or influence in the region,” explains Iulian Chifu, Director of the Centre of Conflict Prevention and Warning in Bucharest.

If that is the case then what security would this new shield provide? And, most importantly, defense from whom? Not even two years since Barack Obama restructured the Bush-era European shield scheme, Moscow’s delight over the US president’s move was replaced by feelings of discontent and concern.

“We are worried that Washington does something before informing us of these actions. It is unclear what exactly they are creating. As soon as we understand, that this system won’t be used against Russia, when we will have legally binding guarantees to that, then this tension will be resolved,” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov says.

Despite being described as fruitful, the recent summit between President Medvedev and NATO ambassadors in Sochi brought no consensus on anti-missile defense.  So experts say the issue will remain a thorn in the side for both Moscow and Washington. At least until next year, when the next NATO-Russia council meeting will be held in Chicago. By that time, construction of the radar facility in Deveselu would most likely be in full swing.