Could anti-missile debate break the ice between NATO and Russia?

By Ben Nimmo, dpa

LISBON — Given the record of recent years, anti-missile systems hardly look like the way to break the ice between Russia and NATO — but their summit in Lisbon appears to have achieved just that. U.S. plans to site anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic provoked outrage in Russia in 2007 and 2008 and triggered a bitter diplomatic stand-off. But NATO’s decision on Friday to invite Russia to talks on joining a new missile shield, and Russia’s tentative acceptance, have turned that pattern on its head. “Missile defense is clearly the most crucial NATO-Russia question: if there were a step forwards on this, it would be a change in paradigm in the NATO-Russia relationship,” said Thomas Gomart, director of Russia studies at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). The question of missile defense has more than once set Moscow and Washington at each another’s throats. U.S. anti-missile plans in the 1960s, the “Star Wars” project of the 1980s, and the Polish-Czech plans of president George W. Bush in 2007-08 were all seen as a threat to Soviet and Russian nuclear strike abilities, and thus to the strategic nuclear balance. Indeed, Russia’s latest national security strategy, approved in May 2009, labels the Bush plan a “fundamental” threat to “global and regional stability.” How did the two sides manage to turn their perceptions around so fast? First, analysts say, U.S. President Barack Obama has made it his priority to prove to Russia that the system is not aimed at it.

“The difference between the Bush and Obama concepts of missile defense is partly technical … but it’s also in the language that it’s couched in — the constant message is that it’s not a threat to Russia,” said Avnish Patel, an expert on the issue at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

U.S. officials point to both the scale of the Obama project (a handful of anti-missile ships at first) and its location (the Eastern Mediterranean) as proof that the system is aimed at Iran, not Russia.