Originally Published 2013-04-05 00:00:00 Published on Apr 05, 2013
Russia's response to new missile defence plans of the US points to Moscow's continued distrust of Washington. However, Moscow and Washington have announced a meeting to discuss the new missile deployment plans in Moscow in late May this year. Perhaps, a breakthrough is still possible.
A ray of hope in US-Russia relations?
United States Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on 15 March that the US plans to place long-range missile interceptors in Poland as part of the fourth and final stage of its restructuring of the European missile defense system. He also stated that Washington would deploy an additional 14 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and a new radar station in Japan by 2017 in the light of the missile threat from North Korea. This announcement strengthens the US' rebalance to Asia and its continued focus on the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, it also throws open a window of opportunity for the US and Russia to restart the "reset" to their relations.

President Obama's much-hyped "reset" of Russia-US relations has almost completely petered out. The year 2012 was particularly bad for US-Russia relations. The US and Russia had differences over Libya, Iran and Syria. Other than this, issues like the Magnitsky law, described by Putin as an "unfriendly act", which prevents Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and in other human right abuses from travelling to the US, raised tensions between the two countries.

Russia retaliated by passing the¬ Dima Yakovlev Act which imposes similar sanctions on US officials accused of human rights violations. This Act also prevents Americans from adopting Russian children. This further vitiated the atmosphere. Russia also put restrictions on foreign funding to NGOs in Russia. Domestic politics in both countries also played a role in contributing to relations remaining frosty through much of the year.

With Obama running for re-election, he had little room for manoeuvrability on Russia's concerns for fear of appearing weak on national security. Putin, who was also running for President, found it convenient to play the nationalist card against the US. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement indicating that Russia's Duma (lower house of Parliament) elections were neither "free nor fair" added to Putin's fears that the US is targeting him and fomenting protests against him.

But more than anything else, it is missile defence which has remained the most intractable issue in the US-Russia relations. It is mainly because of Russia's concerns that the US' and NATO's missile defence plans in Poland and Romania are targeted at it. Now, Hagel's announcement, analysts suggest, could lead to a breakthrough in relations, though American officials have been quick to dismiss suggestion that the change in missile defence plans has anything to do with Russia.

Russia has, however, so far responded rather tepidly to Hagel's statement. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Kommersant newspaper that "We feel no euphoria in connection with what was announced by the U.S. defense secretary and we see no grounds for correcting our position... This is not a concession to Russia and we do not see it as such.... All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a US and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain". He added that Russia will continue to insist that NATO provide legally binding guarantees that the system will not be used against Russia.

Russian analysts clearly fear that Washington's decision has been motivated by its fiscal situation and might be reversed once the economic situation in the US turns around. Moreover, they argue that America plans to place shorter-range missiles in both Poland and Romania within the next five years. Further, US plans to deploy land-based and ship-borne mobile interceptors in Europe are also still on course and therefore the perception of a threat to Russia remains. What is interesting is that some Russian experts have brought in the China angle. For instance, Russian strategist Sergei Rogov's reaction was that "The missile defences the U.S. is building in the Pacific will be capable of intercepting a retaliatory strike from China, which has 50 to 75 intercontinental ballistic missiles."

Russia's response came just days before Chinese President Xi Jinping's first official visit abroad, to Moscow. China's Foreign Ministry has also opposed the new deployment plans suggesting that missile defence "matters to the global strategic balance and to regional stability" and affects "strategic trust among relevant countries". The Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cheng Guoping is also reported to have said that Beijing and Moscow share similar views on missile defence and will strengthen collaboration on it. A joint declaration issued by Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi after their talks in Moscow lays out the uneasiness of both countries without specifically naming the US. The statement said that Russia and China "oppose a country or a bloc of countries unilaterally and without limit strengthening antimissile capabilities, harming strategic stability and international security."

Given how close Russia-China relations are, do Russia and China's responses suggest that the China-Russia partnership is slowly but surely turning into an alliance against the West? Or is this merely another instance of Russia shrewdly using its China card against the West?

More importantly, Russia's response points to Moscow's continued distrust of Washington. This may limit their cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, although Russia views the US role in this region significantly differently from the way it views the US in Europe and Central Asia. However, Moscow and Washington have announced a meeting to discuss the new missile deployment plans in Moscow in late May this year. Perhaps a breakthrough is still possible.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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