Obama's offer to Moscow

As President Barack Obama prepares to head to Moscow next months, negotiations are taking place behind the scenes of the US ballistic missile defence system and Washington may be preparing to offer Russia some concessions.


In the lead-up to US President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia from July 6-8, a flurry of public negotiations is taking place. However, one of the tougher subjects being negotiated more privately is Russia’s demand that the United States abandon its plans to place ballistic missile defence (BMD) installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Stratfor has received unconfirmed information on what the United States may be considering conceding to the Russians in order to gain assurances on other critical issues – like Iran and Afghanistan – from Moscow.

In the negotiations between Moscow and Washington, there are myriad issues on the table – some of which Russia feels confident in handling, like NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine or renegotiating START. Then there are other issues that Russia considers more difficult, like the BMD plans. For Russia, this issue is about more than BMD; it is about an actual US military presence on the former Soviet border. When Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met in April, Russia was prepared to push its demand to keep BMD installations out of Poland, but the United States held firm on the issue.

However, since April, Washington has become more concerned with its war in Afghanistan, the destabilization of neighbouring Pakistan, and more recently the post-election situation in Iran. Enmity between Washington and Moscow could make all of these situations more difficult. The United States knows Russia has some very old but powerful ties to Afghanistan and its Islamist groups. There is little proof yet that Russia has been meddling in Afghanistan, but there is potential. With Pakistan entrenched in chaos, the United States is still interested in using supplementary logistical routes for military supplies bound for Afghanistan, and the only real alternative to Pakistan is Russia’s turf in Central Asia – and even Russia itself – though Russia has frozen all talks on the use of such routes.

And then there is Iran. Russia has given Iran rhetorical backing in recent years. Russia also helped to build Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant and continually threatened the West with further military deals with Tehran (though it has consistently abstained from selling Iran strategic air defence systems). But Obama seems committed to negotiating with Iran, even though its anti-US president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad most likely will serve a second term, and Washington does not need Russia to interfere or escalate tensions.

For quite some time, Stratfor has noted that with US foreign policy focused on fighting the Afghan war and on negotiations with Iran, the question regarding Russia’s resurgence has not been whether the United States will make concessions to the Russians, but how much and how publicly.

Stratfor sources in Moscow have said that the latest offer from the Americans reportedly entails abandoning the Polish/Czech Republic arrangement and instead incorporating existing Russian radars into the existing US BMD architecture. This proposal has advantages and disadvantages both technically and geopolitically.

From a technical perspective, the matter is problematic. US ballistic missile defences rely upon X-band radar for tracking and plotting intercepts. Russia’s Gabala early warning radar in Azerbaijan – one of the radar systems being considered for US use – is of the older Pechora type, and operates at a different frequency than the X-band. While the Gabala radar would certainly be useful for early warning and monitoring Iranian missile tests, it is also oriented toward the Indian Ocean, so that an Iranian ballistic missile launched at Western Europe or the continental United States would quickly pass out of its field of view. The territory of Azerbaijan would also be too close to Iran for basing ground-based mid-course defence interceptors.

A newer, next-generation Voronezh-DM type radar at Armavir in the Russian Caucasus was activated and put on alert in February. The newer radar is thought to have more direct applicability to US BMD efforts, but is still fixed in orientation – in this case toward Africa – so that while Iran and Western Europe both fall within its coverage, an Iranian missile launch directed at the United States would likely be on the periphery of the radar’s field of vision. More study would likely be necessary to determine its precise utility and how exactly it would fit into an overall scheme. But from a technical perspective, it could likely only serve as a complement to – not a replacement for – the fixed X-band radar slated for the Czech Republic.

That said, there are alternatives to placing an X-band radar in the Czech Republic. The United States also has a mobile deployable X-band radar (though the one currently in place in Israel reportedly experienced some technical issues during emplacement), and BMD-capable Aegis-equipped warships could be parked in the Black and Mediterranean seas as well as the North Sea east of the United Kingdom.

There also remains the issue of basing for interceptors. The ground-based mid-course defence interceptors slated for Poland require fixed concrete silos. Poland is about as good a spot as any, though an alternative site could be considered. In addition, it has been suggested that an Iranian missile caught with sufficient warning and with proper tracking data could be engaged by an interceptor based in Alaska.

Ultimately, from a purely technical standpoint, doing a deal with the Russians that sacrifices the Poland and Czech Republic sites in exchange for some access to Russian radar data does not seem particularly compelling. But the United States’ issues with Russia are much larger and more complex than BMD meant to defend against Iran. Washington could still decide that using alternative methods to guard against Iranian ballistic missiles is sufficient, and a larger deal with Moscow is worth the sacrifice.

There is also the possibility that the United States is striking a deal with Russia in the short term in order to get its house in order over Afghanistan and Iran, while in the longer term keeping its door open with Poland and the Czech Republic (though as BMD technology continues to mature, Washington will field increasingly flexible and mobile systems; the need for a fixed installation is fleeting). But such a scheme would be tricky since Moscow does not entirely trust Washington, and Warsaw will most likely not be pleased that the United States has abandoned it, even temporarily, in order to appease the Russians.

But from a geopolitical viewpoint, the United States has made it clear that its priorities are Afghanistan and Iran at the moment, not Russia or its resurgence. Conceding on Poland would not only create a more amiable Russia that could help with Afghanistan and Iran, it would also prevent the Afghan and Iranian situations from getting more difficult for the United States.

This plan seems reasonable geopolitically, but many within the administration are not on board, as they know the ramifications of a deal with Moscow. Such a deal could lose the faith of those NATO allies that depend on the United States to protect them from a resurgent Russia (not just Poland, but many former Soviet states that continue to feel pressure from Moscow). It would also mean effectively surrendering ground to Russia that – even when the United States has more room to manoeuvre – could be difficult to win back. Both of these consequences are something Moscow wants, so the Kremlin is closely examining the latest offer regarding BMD. Russia is concerned that Washington could rescind the offer because of the plan’s technical shortcomings and because the implications for the perception of America’s commitment to its NATO allies are very apparent to some within the administration.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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