Page last updated at 16:45 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 17:45 UK

Will missile defence shift benefit US?

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev in a file photo from July
Mr Obama may be hoping to win concessions from Russia

It would be hard to invent a news story that tied together more strategic and political issues than the Obama administration's decision to change its stance on the deployment of a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.

It touches on Washington's assessment of Iran's military capabilities.

There is an underlying assumption that Tehran's capacity for mounting warheads on long-range missiles does not pose an immediate strategic headache.

It also sends a signal to the peoples of Central Europe about how President Barack Obama proposes to manage the post Cold-War order in their neck of the woods in the next few years.

And it raises questions about the administration's much talked-about desire to "hit the re-set" button on its relationship with Russia.

Russian flexibility

American plans to put missiles in Poland and woo new allies from Estonia to Georgia and Ukraine left the Russians feeling humiliated, encircled - and angry.

Might the re-timetabling of that perceived threat make the Russians a little more flexible on possible UN sanctions aimed at Iranian nuclear ambitions down the road?

Will there be some sort of back-door deal [with Russia] on a tougher approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions at the UN?

Or does it risk creating the impression among American voters that Mr Obama finds it difficult to stand up to Russian bluster.

When then-President Bush proposed to base advanced radar systems in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland, the move proclaimed that countries which had until recently been occupied satellites of the Soviet Union were being taken lock, stock and barrel into the Western camp.

That promise was extended not just to the old satellite states like Poland but to the Baltic Republics, which had been part of the Soviet Union itself.

However the Obama administration works to portray its new strategic thinking in the coming months, there will be a feeling in parts of Eastern Europe that his government is going to strike a different balance between the need to embrace all those new allies and the need to avoid alienating Russia.

The way the announcement of the shift in emphasis on the future of American missile defence was handled was a skilful muddying of the waters.

Gates on missile shield overhaul

Statements came first from the president himself and then from his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, within a few moments of each other. The tone of both was simple.

This was not about leaving new allies in the lurch, or about kow-towing to the Russians, or even about rowing back from the concept of developing the capability of protecting America and its allies by shooting down enemy missiles.

This was about improvements in sensor and missile technology rendering obsolete the old plans to place fixed position radar in the Czech Republic and fixed batteries of missiles in Poland.

The new capabilities, we were assured, would be more flexible and more technologically advanced.

'Misinterpreting reality'

There was even a whiff of idealism in there - the hope that Russia might one day be persuaded into co-operating on creating some kind of defence.

And there was a reminder that America was continuing to talk to its allies about their readiness to host new-generation interceptors in the future.

Mr Gates, of course, is a useful ally for President Obama at these sticky moments.

He is a holdover from the Bush administration and, as such, once presided over the now-abandoned Czech/Polish plan himself.

Who better to deploy to make the case that this change of plan is based strictly on military and scientific considerations rather than diplomatic expedience?

As the Defence Secretary put it: "Those who say we are scrapping the Missile Defence Shield are either misinformed or are misinterpreting reality."

Mr Gates even said that talks were under way that might eventually result in Poland and the Czech Republic hosting new generation missiles - conveniently, though, that would be much further down the road, perhaps somewhere around 2015.

The first signs that not everyone was convinced by the administration's presentational skills were not long in coming.

Republican Senator John McCain called the decision "seriously misguided" and said that that it had "the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe".

It will be some time before it is possible to work out precisely how to evaluate Washington's new posture on missile defence.

Judgement will be based in part on the detail of any new plans that are published.

Where and when will better sensors and interceptor batteries be deployed and what exactly will their capabilities be? Will they indeed really end up in Eastern Europe ?

How will Russia respond to America's announcement? Moscow has already said it sees no need to make concessions, but will there be some sort of back-door deal on a tougher approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions at the UN?

There are plenty of threads brought together in this American announcement. Unpicking them will take time.

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