With his eight-month presidency seemingly weakening, United States President Barack Obama struck. A familiar pattern in his political career is repeating. His decision on Thursday to scrap the plans of his predecessor George W Bush to build a land-based anti-missile shield in the heart of Europe overlooking Russia's western borders may appear justifiable, but is nonetheless a stunning national security reversal.
It was to be a missile defense system of unproven technology, paid for with money that America could ill-afford to waste, and conceived against a threat that probably doesn't exist. Still, missile defense is a Republican obsession that goes back to Ronald Reagan and the "Star Wars" system. The Republicans shall not flag or fail and they shall go on to the end. They shall fight on the seas and oceans, in the air, on the beaches and landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, in the hills, and they shall not surrender. They shall attack Obama for blinking of Russian blackmail.
has opened another front just when his is on the frying pan and he is barely coping with the Afghanistan. Maybe he can make financial and diplomatic capital out of dropping the plan. The anti-missile shield needed to be developed at enormous cost and he can use the savings elsewhere. The plan was a bone of contention with Russia and he can now advance nuclear arms-reduction talks with Moscow and even count on the Kremlin not to cast a veto in the on a new round of sanctions against Iran.
Not only Central Europe and Ukraine and Georgia but also Iran will huddle in heightened anxiety to ponder the implications of what Obama has done. His decision rests on the argument that the threat posed by Iran is currently in the nature of short- and intermediate-range missiles that is best countered through a reconfigured system of smaller SM-3 missiles based on proven and cost-effective technologies that can be deployed using the sea-based Aegis system as early as 2011.
The revised approach envisages that as technologies evolve, the future threats can be met in a phased manner, while the US currently counters any threat much sooner than the previous program.
Significantly, Obama concluded with an offer to Moscow. "Now this approach is also consistent with NATO's [North Atlantic Treaty Organization's] missile defense efforts and provides opportunities for enhanced international collaboration going forward," he said. The announcement comes hardly a week before Obama's scheduled "private" meeting with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session.
Equally, on the eve of Obama's announcement, new NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for an "open-minded and unprecedented dialogue" with Russia to reduce security tensions in Europe and to confront common threats. He revealed that NATO officials would to hear the Kremlin's views on how NATO should develop strategically in the long term.
"We should engage Russia and listen to Russian positions," he said. He underscored the need for an "open and frank conversation [with Moscow] that creates a new atmosphere" that would lead to a "true strategic partnership" in which the alliance and Russia collaborated on issues such as Afghanistan, terrorism and piracy.
Rasmussen concluded, "Russia should realize that NATO is here and that NATO is a framework for our trans-Atlantic relationship. But we should also take into account that Russia has legitimate security concerns." He offered that NATO was prepared to discuss Medvedev's proposal for a new security architecture in Europe. Rasmussen had just visited Washington.
The Russian Foreign Ministry lost no time in responding to Obama's announcement on missile defense. "Such a development would be in line with the interests of our relations with States," a spokesman said. He subsequently refuted suggestions of any quid pro quo behind the US decision. He said any sort of grand bargain with the US was "not consistent with our [Russian] policy nor our approach to solving problems with any nations, no matter how sensitive or complex they are".
However, the fact remains that Obama's decision, while significantly boosting US relations with Russia, also puts pressure on the Kremlin. The "Iran Six" process  over Iran's nuclear program enters a new phase on October 1. The big question is whether Moscow would actually veto a UN Security Council resolution if push came to shove. The crunch comes just a week after the Obama-Medvedev meet when the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns comes face-to-face with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
True, the last exposition of the Russian position given by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a week ago was unequivocal. He made it clear Moscow wouldn't block any new rounds of tough against Iran and he dismissed a US timetable for securing progress from Iran as regards ending its uranium-enrichment program.
Lavrov said, "I do not think these sanctions will be approved by the United Nations Security Council ... They [Iran] need an equal place in this regional dialogue. Iran is a partner that has never harmed Russia in any way." Lavrov added that even an expected US move to drop plans to station a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe wouldn't be seen as a concession to Russia, as, according to him, such a move would merely correct a previous US mistake.
But then, a week is a long time in politics. Four days after Lavrov spoke - and two days before Obama spoke - Medvedev said. "Sanctions are not very effective on the whole, but sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and it is the right thing to do." The West's Russia hands promptly perceived a "subtle shift" in the Kremlin's position, whereas the US-Russia differences over Iran are far too deep and fundamental to be easily sidestepped.
Obama's decision will stimulate thinking in the multipolar world within the Kremlin. As a top scholar on NATO at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy, Vladimir Shtol, pointed out gently, any US rethink of the missile defense system would probably be the result of economic pressures connected with the global crisis, and not a political deal with Russia. "I don't believe the US would ever fully back out of the missile shield, because it is in their long-term interests and closely connected with their strategy in Europe," Shtol said.
The realists in Moscow will note that even as Obama spoke in Washington, Dennis Blair, America's intelligence boss, was releasing the latest National Intelligence Strategy report of the US, which is compiled every four years. The report specifically warned that Russia "may continue to seek avenues for reasserting power and influence that complicates US interests".
On Tuesday, Russia signed defense agreements with Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, allowing Moscow to maintain military bases there for the next half-century. The Russian military headquarters in Abkhazia will be in the Black Sea port of Gudauta, which ensures that even if the pro-US regime in Kiev forces the closure of Sevastopol, Moscow will thwart US attempts to turn the Black Sea into a "NATO lake".
Put in perspective, therefore, Moscow will carefully weigh Obama's "overture". The litmus test will be the US's willingness to abandon NATO expansion. The eastern European countries' integration into Western Euro-Atlantic structures was contrary to the understanding held out to former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev. Again, Russia is not , but cold warriors cannot grasp this. Moscow's concept of national sovereignty and its claims of special interests in the post-Soviet space provoke negative feelings in the West.
Moscow sees no reason to settle for the role of a junior partner when it estimates that the US is a declining power and the locus of world politics is shifting eastward. Besides, Washington pursues a policy of "selective engagement, selective containment". Over Afghanistan or Iran, Washington needs Russian support, while the problem of the post-Soviet space remains acute and Russia feels excluded from the Euro-Atlantic security arrangements pending, while a "demilitarization" of relations between Russia and the West remains elusive.
The smart thing for Obama will be to cast his decision on missile defense within a working format of "resetting" ties with Russia rather than as a move that deserves a quid pro quo over Iran. Moscow will only assess Obama's decision as a pragmatic step necessitated by the US's economic crisis. Meanwhile, Russia will cooperate on fresh START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) talks or help out the US in Afghanistan, which is in its interests too.
1. The "Iran Six" nations are the permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China - plus Germany.