Munich 2010: lessons learned, lessons forgotten

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a meeting with members of the Russian-German community in Munich, 11 October 2006 (AFP Photo / Denis Sinyakov)
Three years ago, former Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the world about the dangers of any nation – and the United States in this particular case– acting unilaterally on the global stage.

“Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper-use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts,” Putin told the assembled delegates in the now famous speech. “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.”

With international leaders and diplomats in Munich for the latest security conference, it seems that little has changed since the former Russian president issued his stern wakeup call. Indeed, things may have in fact gotten worse.

Far from removing its gargantuan boot print off the face of the planet, the United States is increasing its military presence around the world, using the dubious threat of “Rogue States” as its international calling card.

Romania to host US missile shield elements

Romania announced Thursday – with timing so bad it will be interpreted as deliberate – that it would host US medium-range interceptor missiles as part of Washington’s revamped missile shield plans.

“Romania has been officially invited by US President Barack Obama to be part of the [new] missile defense system,” Romanian President Traian Basescu told reporters on Thursday.

The Romanian president added that the decision to host the US system should not be seen as a statement against Russia.

“The new system is not against Russia. I want to categorically stress this, Romania [will] not host a system against Russia, but against other threats,” Basescu said.

The very fact that Romania (following after Poland and the Czech Republic’s lead) must stress that “this system is not against Russia” proves, in fact, that there is a chance the system could be used against Russia.  After all, common sense says that if there was no chance of the system being a threat to Russia, there would be no reason for denying such a possibility in the first place.

As Putin told the conference three years ago: "Plans to expand certain elements of the anti-missile defence system to Europe cannot help but disturb us. Who needs the next step of what would be, in this case, an inevitable arms race? I deeply doubt that Europeans themselves do."

Reset or regret?

Last year, Obama announced he would scrap plans for Poland and the Czech Republic to host elements of a US anti-missile system, ostensibly designed to counter possible strikes from rogue nations like Iran. But the prospect of a missile shield in Eastern Europe, which would upset the already rickety power cart on the continent, infuriated Russia.

Due to a reassessment of the threat from Iran (and possibly with an eye on relations with Russia; after all, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went so far as to press an actual reset button together with Lavrov), Washington announced a new scheme for a “far more effective defense,” to quote US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The revamped system will have land- and sea-based interceptors based on the Standard Missile interceptor, SM-3, “able to deal with the threat from multiple short- and medium-range missiles – a very real threat to our allies and some 80,000 American troops based in Europe,” Gates added.

Now, Romania, next to the perennial question of what to do about Iran, has taken center stage at the Munich talks

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opened discussion on the issue of an anti-missile system in Romania by reminding Washington of the Montreux Convention, which limits the passage of warships through the Black Sea straits and that was signed by Romania.

“We hope that in the context of this dialogue, the American partners will give us a full explanation for these issues with the understanding that the Black Sea regime is regulated by the Montreux Convention,” Lavrov said on Friday.

Although Washington’s decision to host its unproven anti-missile system in Romania as opposed to Poland and the Czech Republic may be less of a hypothetical threat from Moscow’s point of view, there is one aspect of the missile system that may serve as a lightning rod in the future: Romania’s relative proximity to Georgia, which sits directly across the Black Sea.

Georgia on my mind

In August 2008, following Georgia’s ill-founded attempt to absorb South Ossetia by military force, which led to the Five-Day War with Russia, Moscow demanded that all countries comply with the Montreux Convention, which restricts the movement of non-Turkish military shipping through the Turkish straits.

At the height of the conflict, the United States demanded to use the straits to send two medical ships carrying aid to Georgia, a move that would have violated the Convention. Turkey did not allow the passage of another two US naval vessels, which exceeded the weight limit defined in the convention, instead allowing three lighter warships to pass through the straits.

Although the political situation in Georgia may change long before any anti-missile batteries are installed in Romania, there remains the possibility that Tbilisi, especially under its current leadership, may get the wrong message by the US decision and once again act irresponsibly.

“We are aware of the risk that America’s decision [to host an anti-missile system in Romania] may have in future dealings with Tbilisi,” said a senior Russian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity due to his involvement in the conference. “But we assess that sort of risk to be rather low at this time.”

Meanwhile, Washington’s decision to build a scaled-down missile shield in the south of Europe will require a Russian rethink in the region, argues Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former Black Sea Fleet commander.

“The situation where US SM-3 missile interceptors will enter combat duty in Romania and the Black Sea could lead to dramatic changes in the existing balance of forces in the region that would not be in Russia's favor,” Kravchenko told Interfax.

“In this situation, it is necessary not only to stop reductions of the Black Sea Fleet's military infrastructure, but also to revise its tasks, to increase its combat potential and to improve the range of ships.

“From a military standpoint, the US administration's assurances that missile defense facilities in the south of Europe do not threaten Russia's interests are hypocritical, to say the least,” he said.

A bad START?

Undoubtedly the greatest risk that Washington is taking with its ongoing geopolitical theater is that of sinking the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which, since coming into force in 1994, has been responsible for eliminating about 80% of all strategic nuclear weapons.

Russia and the United States failed to reach agreement on a new treaty, which expired on December 5, 2009, although both sides have agreed to honor the original START conditions pending agreement on a successive document.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's aide Sergey Prikhodko told reporters Wednesday that disagreements over verification and control procedures have almost been resolved.

“It is most likely to happen in the first half of this year,” he added.

But how Romania’s surprise announcement to host the anti-missile system will affect these plans remain to be seen, especially since the news seems to have taken Russia unawares.

Moscow is now demanding that Washington disclose the tactical and technical features of the anti-ballistic missile interceptors that it plans to deploy in Romania, Russia's Permanent Envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said.

“We need to receive specific tactical and technical characteristics of the systems that are to be deployed as part of new US plans so as to be convinced that these systems cannot intercept heavy ballistic missiles that are in service in Russia,” Rogozin told Echo Moskvy radio on Friday.

“We cannot say so far that we have the exhaustive information on this account,” Rogozin added.

One last note: it must be remembered that the original anti-missile system designed for Poland and the Czech Republic was the brainchild of George W Bush and his neoconservative administration. Needless to say, the Republican Party was not happy when Obama announced that he was scrapping the plan for his own version.

In order for START to pass a Congressional vote, the Republicans will demand some sort of anti-missile system, lest – according to the rationale of the scaremongering crowd – the Russians manage to gain a strategic advantage out of START. Now, it will be interesting to see how the Russians respond to the Romanian anti-missile system, the details of which remain largely unknown.

And finally, Iran

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plans to meet with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki in Munich on Friday in an effort to persuade Tehran to respond to the uranium processing offers made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“Arrangements have been made for my meeting with the Foreign Minister of Iran, Mr. Mottaki, in Munich today,” Lavrov told a news conference in Berlin on Friday. “I will try once again to clearly explain to him the joint position of the "3+3" group regarding the need for Iran to answer the IAEA's questions.”

Russia and Germany are among the six countries (the UN Security Council's five permanent member states, plus Germany) that have been working to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, he said.

“Currently there is a chance to reach an agreement on several absolutely concrete questions, particularly the fuel supplies for the Iranian nuclear research reactor,” the Russian minister said. “An agreement on this issue would change drastically the atmosphere and would provide conditions for resuming the negotiations between the Sextet group and Iran. It would also create the most favorable conditions for the settlement of this issue in political and diplomatic ways.”

The IAEA is waiting for a response from Iran in regards to the proposal of sending its depleted uranium to Russia for further processing, which would then be returned to Iran for medical purposes.

Iran's official IRNA news agency reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will also address the conference on Friday night.

Iran says it is pursuing nuclear energy for purely civilian purposes, while other countries – specifically the United States, Israel and some countries of the EU – argue that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear energy for military purposes.

“We reaffirmed that if we see no constructive response from Iran, we will have to discuss the issue at the UN Security Council,” Lavrov said, following talks in Berlin with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.

Robert Bridge, RT