Thursday, March 20, 2008

2 + 2 = 0

On Monday and Tuesday this week the United States and Russia met on a 2 + 2 level: Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates met their Russian counterparts Sergej Lavrov and Anatoly Serdyukov. They discussed – you certainly already guessed it – the issue of the missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The four failed to reach an agreement but expressed their will to continue their discussions. During the talks both sides adopted a strikingly moderate tone after a long period of rancor between the two countries.

On the second day of the meeting, the United States made a proposal according to which Russian military inspectors would have access to sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the system would not be activated until there was demonstrable evidence that Iran had tested missiles capable of reaching the United States or its allies in Western Europe.

Lavrov described the U.S. proposals as "important and useful for the minimization of our concerns." However, the Russian Defense Minister was more critical and cautioned that "the positions of our two sides have not changed." Probably his memories of the last round of talks between the four ministers in October 2007 are still vivid. At that meeting the U.S. sent written proposals that Russia said contradicted the agreements reached at the discussions. Condoleezza Rice takes a different viewpoint on this issue: “Things get lost in translation”. Pavel Podvig comments on this issue: U.S. officials admitted that they "tweaked" the original proposal, but they are too shy to say exactly how (and reporters are too shy to ask). However, this time the proposal was submitted in writing on the following day and was identical with the one that was presented orally the day before.

The Washington Post reports on the current proposal:

Gates said the Bush administration expects an answer "reasonably quickly" after it submits its written offer, but some news reports here suggested that Moscow might be playing for time, knowing that a new administration in Washington could take a different position on the necessity of missile defense.
It is not necessarily only a playing for time. Several concerns still exist on the Russian side:

Sources in the Russian defense ministry are very dubious about the new U.S. proposals. Off the record, they insist that all proposals brought by Rice and Gates to Moscow this time do not change the gist of the problem. Their aim is to alleviate Russia's grievances and show their European allies that it is impossible to come to terms with "those Russians" […] The same sources argue that Washington has not reduced Russia's concerns about the threat of a U.S. missile shield to the Russian nuclear deterrent in the European part, where Russia keeps about one third of its counterforce potential.
One special point of concern on the Russian side is the United States is not going to sign a legally binding document, i.e. Washington can retarget the radar and make missiles operational whenever it deems it appropriate without being in breach with any legally binding obligations.

This meeting was definitely no breakthrough – which no-one expected it to be – but definitely a step in the right direction. However, many more are needed.

Another issue that was under discussion at the meeting but did not receive due attention is the successor treaty for START-I:

Lavrov also said the negotiators had failed to agree on the future of nuclear arms reduction after the START-I treaty expires in December 2009, but pledged to work on a legally binding document in the sphere. "A lot needs to be done to draft this document," he admitted.

Another aspect of missile defense: some of the actors of the 2+2 meetings are likely to change once the new Russian government – probably headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – assumes office in May. The United States has already now a (not so) new face in the missile defense arena: Major General Patrick O’Reilly steps in for Lt. General Henry Obering. The NTI Newswire reports:

The White House has tapped a senior Army official with extensive experience in missile defense programs to succeed Lt. Gen. Henry Obering as head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the Army Times reported today (see GSN, April 9, 2004).

Maj. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly has served as director of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program and as product manager for the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 missile interceptor and the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system. He also oversaw directed energy programs that include the Airborne Laser project.

Obering, who became agency director in 2004, has not announced if he plans to retire or seek a new post, according to MDA spokesman Rick Lehner (Michael Hoffman, Army Times, March 19).
pictures: Gates, Rice, Lavrov © RIA Novosti, AFP, O’Reilly: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

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