Russia's tough line on missile shield overshadows Obama's Moscow trip

Posted in Russia , United States | 06-Jul-09 | Author: Luke Harding| Source: The Guardian (UK)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands after a joint news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow July 6, 2009.

Hopes of a new nuclear arms reduction deal between Moscow and Washington appeared to be in doubt today, after Russia said there could be no agreement unless the US was prepared to heed its concerns on missile defence.

Barack Obama flies into Moscow tomorrow for his first trip to Russia as US president. The summit's centrepiece is supposed to be a groundbreaking agreement on nuclear arms reduction.

Obama and Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, agreed during their last meeting in April to hold talks on a successor treaty to the 1991 Start-1 pact, which expires in December. But attempts to reach a deal appear to have come unstuck over the same problem that defeated the Bush administration: the Kremlin's unbending hostility to the Pentagon's planned missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. While Obama has agreed to review the plan, he is not prepared to abandon it. Today Medvedev said that any new arms reduction treaty was definitively "linked" to the US's missile defence ambitions in central Europe.

Medvedev said: "We consider these issues are interconnected. It is sufficient to show restraint and show an ability to compromise. And then we can agree on the basis of a new deal on Start."

Medevedev's comments place Obama in an uncomfortable position on the eve of one of the biggest foreign policy trips of his presidency. If he makes concessions he risks a political backlash at home and the charge of capitulation. If he doesn't, he may emerge from the US-Russia summit no more successful than George Bush.

Today Russian officials revealed that they had not been able to reach agreement on a "framework document" setting out a blueprint for nuclear talks - an ominous sign. Obama, however, made clear his determination to improve relations.

"I believe that Americans and Russians have many common interests, interests that our governments have not pursued as actively as we could have," he told the Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

On Tuesday he will meet Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and the man who most people believe still runs the country. Obama described Putin slightingly last week as having "one foot in the past".

In his interview, Obama acknowledged "Russian sensitivities" over the shield, but said it was needed to protect the US and Europe from a nuclear-armed Iranian missile. He made clear he would not accept Moscow's linkage between arms control and missile defence, a statement that suggest there is little prospect of a rapid breakthrough.

Today analysts said there were profound, irreconcilable differences between both sides, not just over the shield, but technical issues including counting, verification, and delivery systems.

"It requires a miracle to resolve these differences," Sergey Rogov, director of the US and Canadian Institute in Moscow, said.

The US and Russia account for more than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons. They have agreed in principle to reduce their nuclear warheads below the 2,000 agreed in the Start treaty to 1,500-1,700 each. But they have not been able to agree on a reduction in delivery systems, which include intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles or heavy bombers.

According to Rogov, Russia wants to reduce the number of launchers to 600. The US is insisting on around 1,000. Additionally, Moscow is against the US having what it calls a "return potential", which would allow nuclear weapons scrapped by the US to be redeployed in the event of a nuclear crisis. "I'm not sure Obama understands it," Rogov said.

Writing last week in Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow defence analyst Pavel Felgenhaur predicted the summit would be a failure. He said the Russian government, emboldened by the recent oil price rise, expected the US to make "one-sided" concessions while making none itself.

During his two-and-a-half day trip to Moscow, Obama is expected to seek Russia's co-operation on Iran, and support for a stronger sanctions regime against North Korea. Today, however, Medevev hailed Iran as a "major partner".