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The Missiles Of September


SM-3 missile launched from the destroyer USS Decatur in June 2007.

SM-3 missile launched from the destroyer USS Decatur in June 2007.

Is Moscow already having second thoughts about vocally embracing the U.S. Barack Obama's changes in Washington's missile defense plans?

Apparently so. The head of Russia's General Staff, General Nikolai Makarov, said on Monday that Russia has a problem with potential U.S. plans to place a radar system in the Caucasus. Makarov also said that Moscow has not backed off on its plans to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, despite announcements over the weekend that it had.

It is still unclear whether Makarov's remarks indicate a change in the Kremlin's approach to Obama's missile defense plans. But it does raise questions about the extent to which the timing and circumstances of Obama's announcement on missile defense last week influenced Russia's initially positive reaction to the news.

According to my sources, Obama signed off on the Pentagon's proposed changes on Wednesday September 16 and planned to announce them on Friday September 18. This schedule would give the White House time to dispatch U.S. delegations to Prague and Warsaw to inform the Czech and Polish authorities that the administration was altering its missile defense policy.

But as is often the case in Washington, word of the decision leaked overnight on Wednesday, forcing the White House to move its roll out of the new policy forward by a day.

The symbolism of making the announcement on September 17, the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, was unfortunate. And in the interim between the leaks and Obama's official announcement, the White House briefly lost control of the story as it made its way through the European news cycle.

By the time of Obama's announcement Thursday morning in Washington -- which was already Thursday evening in Europe -- perceptions had already set in that Obama had abandoned missile defense.

As Gregory Feifer notes in his post yesterday, this led to triumphalism and crowing in Moscow about how the Kremlin forced Washington to back down on its plans. It also caused deep concern in Eastern Europe that the Obama was abandoning the Czechs and Poles in the face of an increasingly assertive Russia.

I spoke to James Goldgeier, a senior fellow the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of the book "America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11," shortly after Obama spoke on Thursday:

It is unfortunate that the president, secretary of defense, and [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General [James] Cartwright didn't speak [on Wednesday] because they were very clear in presenting the decision that the administration has made -- which is to construct a missile defense against Iran. But unfortunately for the administration -- because the decision was to do something different than the deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic -- the story that was out this morning on CNN and wires was 'Obama Scraps Missile Defense' or 'Obama Shelves Missile Defense Shield.' And that was incorrect.

It was indeed incorrect. But it was also this incorrect interpretation everybody -- including the Russians -- reacted to. And it will be very difficult for Moscow to walk back their lavish praise of Obama's decision now without looking rather silly.

It is hard -- if not impossible -- to view what Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and General Cartwright announced on Thursday as a climb down.

The previous plan, to place an advanced radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, was designed to counter a long-range Iranian missile threat that the Pentagon has concluded will not materialize nearly as quickly as they had previously feared.

Instead, the threat from Iran today stems from their development and acquisition of short and intermediate-range missiles that can already strike Europe.

In the short term, the administration plans to deploy dozens of SM-3 interceptors using the sea-based Aegis system as soon as 2011.

The system will be upgraded in 2015 and will include interceptors based on sea and land -- possibly even in Poland and the Czech Republic. A more advanced system would be built in 2018 and 2020, with the capability to intercept long-range Iranian missiles, should that need arise.

In place of the sophisticated radar the Bush administration planned for the Czech Republic, White House officials say they would use a more modest version that would be located in Turkey or the Caucasus.

Goldgeier described the administration's decision as based on "the threat we see" and "the best technology we can deploy against that threat."

Do General Makarov's tough comments today mean that Russia is about to take a harder line on the new U.S. plan? We should probably have a better idea when Obama meets Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in New York later this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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