President Barack Obama roiled the U.S. election campaign when he was caught on a live microphone telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would “have more flexibility” after his next election to deal with Moscow’s concerns over a planned European missile shield. But so far the comments have caused few ripples in Europe.
Moscow has been highly critical of U.S.-led missile-defense plans in Europe, which the Kremlin claims would eventually weaken its own nuclear deterrent. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said Mr. Obama’s Monday remarks were a sign that the president was “going to cave to Russia,” a sentiment echoed on Wednesday by members of Poland’s opposition parties.
But broadly, officials and diplomats from across the region said they were inclined to take Mr. Obama’s remarks at face value. The U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have pledged to cooperate with Russia on the system, which is initially aimed at defending against missiles from Iran.
Diplomats haven’t expected advances on those talks in a U.S. election year. Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin already has made clear he won’t go to Chicago to meet alliance leaders gathering there for a summit in May. There, NATO will announce an “interim capability” for its missile-defense system.
The Obama administration caused tremors in Central and Eastern Europe in 2009, when it changed course on a George W. Bush administration missile-defense plan amid a broader effort to “reset” relations between Washington and Moscow. Under Mr. Obama’s so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach, land-based interceptors are to be deployed in Romania in 2015 and in Poland in 2018.
The shift in U.S. policy—which emerged though media reporting—raised concerns in Poland and other countries about the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to defend their borders.
Members of Poland’s opposition, which is critical of warming ties between the Polish government and Berlin and Moscow, said Mr. Obama’s overheard comments give credence to their fears that Washington’s missile-defense commitment is less than iron-clad.
“I’m absolutely not surprised,” said Witold Waszczykowski, a negotiator for Poland during talks on the original missile-defense program of the Bush administration and now an opposition member of Parliament from the socially conservative Law and Justice party. “Obama doesn’t like the idea of missile defense right now. It’s contradictory to the ‘reset’ policy towards Russia.”
But Stefan Niesiolowski, a lawmaker from the governing Civic Platform party and chairman of the defense committee in the lower house of Parliament, said of Mr. Obama’s overheard comment: “This is not surprising or new, and there’s no outrage in Poland.”
He said the comment has caused some to think the missile-defense agreement could change. But, he said, “There’s no military threat, and we haven’t had a situation as secure as this in 300 years. The level of U.S. military engagement in Poland therefore isn’t of top importance.”
Romania’s government had no comment on Mr. Obama’s remarks. A spokesman for the Czech foreign ministry declined to comment. Poland’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request to comment.
Analysts say the quiet reaction in Eastern Europe stems in part from a strategy shift by Poland, the region’s largest country, that accelerated after 2009. Once focused on the U.S. and NATO for its security, Poland has warmed to Russia and Germany, and pushed for the first time defense initiatives through the European Union, including backing for an EU military headquarters and support for a joint plan to buy air tankers.
Poland’s relative economic success and greater self-confidence means it is less fixated on Washington, analysts say.
“If you’re reliant on one source of security, then you run the risk of being just a chip in the game. If bigger interests are at stake, then decisions can be taken over your head,” said Ian Kearns, chief executive of the European Leadership Network, a think tank based in London.
Washington has also been working to reassure its allies with other steps. The U.S. has been rotating Patriot missile batteries in and out of Poland every few months from a base in Germany since mid-2010. During the monthlong stints at Polish military installations, U.S. troops train and conduct exercises alongside Polish soldiers. Washington has also plans to site an air-training unit in Poland, which has agreed to host a missile-interceptor site.
Romania, which is to host land-based SM-3 interceptors starting in three years, received a visit from a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser in January.
One question is what a “more flexible” response to Russia would mean. Mr. Kearns said allies could agree to provide more transparency about the system and address Russian worries that when the system ramps up at the end of this decade, it could be big enough to blunt Moscow’s nuclear deterrent.
Ellen Tauscher, Mr. Obama’s envoy for Strategic Stability and Missile Defense, said in Washington on Tuesday that the U.S. is seeking to get “Russia inside the missile defense tent now.” But she said the U.S. wouldn’t accept limitations on the capabilities and numbers of its missile defenses or share classified information with Moscow.