The president’s decision to reverse Bush-era foreign policy in Eastern Europe by scrapping plans to build a missile defense shield and radar system in Poland and the Czech Republic resulted in disparate and polarized responses last week.
Seventy years ago to the day that the Red Army invaded Poland, the Obama administration announced the major foreign policy shift to cries of “betrayal” by commenters in Poland and nations across the former Soviet bloc. It is a move, they say, that does nothing but embolden an increasingly aggressive Russia at the expense of America’s trusted allies.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately hailed the move as “right and brave” when it was announced Thursday. Russian newspapers echoed Putin’s message, with the website Pravda even calling Obama Europe’s “national hero.” Some sources report that the Russian plan to install truck-mounted Iskander missiles on the Polish border to “neutralize” the US missile shield has been swiftly frozen.
This warm response from Russia, however, has undoubtedly come with a price. The leaders of decidedly pro-American Eastern Europe have issued statements in stolid acceptance of the plan, but many Eastern European commenters appear to have been stunned by the news.
"Betrayal! The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back," the Polish tabloid Fakt declared on its front page today. An editorial in Hospodarske Novine, a respected pro-business Czech newspaper, said "an ally we rely on has betrayed us, and exchanged us for its own, better relations with Russia, of which we are rightly afraid."
The reaction has come most severely from countries across the former Soviet bloc, including the Czech Republic, whose leaders sacrificed political capitol for the original missile shield deal, and Poland, whose people fear the symbolic precedent set by such a move.
“This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence,” said former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.
As is often the case in Eastern Europe, the politics at play are complicated, the attitudes deeply set. The official explanation from the White House points to revised intelligence estimates about Iran’s missile capability and promises continued protection of America’s European allies, but that has done little to calm the nerves of rattled Eastern European leaders, who now are left wondering where they stand in Obama’s Europe.
As former Polish President Lech Walesa said to Polish TV, “It’s not that we need the shield, but it’s about the way we’re treated here.”
Polish President Lech Kaczynski said he was concerned that Obama’s new strategy leaves Poland in a dangerous "gray zone" between Western Europe and the old Soviet sphere, the Associated Press reports.
“Poland de-facto loses strategic alliance with Washington without the missile defense system,” a senior official with the Polish administration said.
The issue has become highly politicized in Poland, and left wing opposition leaders came out in support of Obama’s plan almost immediately. “We know very well that if the project was executed, Poland would become a target for all the countries that would like to attack the U.S,” said minority SLD leader Grzegorz Napieralski.
Though there have been protests, both in the Czech Republic and Poland, against the shield, the latest opinion polls in Poland show that a majority of Poles supported the shield.
“The American decision was made in the well-understood American interest that now means good relations with Russia, for which President Obama is ready to sacrifice the interests of Central-European countries,” said Zbigniew Lewicki, professor of American Studies at Warsaw University.
Former Bush administration officials echoed this disappointment. Admitting “shock” at hearing the news, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Bush, Mary Beth Long spoke yesterday on the symbolic value of the defense system.
“Putting a facility on Czech and Polish soil was symbolically, for the U.S. and NATO, extremely important to these countries, and to the former Soviet satellite countries like them,” Long said.
Some who supported the Bush plan originally, however, are praising Obama’s plan. Most notable is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama’s lone holdover from the Bush era.
“Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing,” said Gates. “[The new plan] is more adapted to the threat we see developing.”
As most commentators agree, one way or another, this policy shift is a significant foreign policy victory for Russia. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the United States will be able to retrieve any dividends from the investment in Russian security.
In NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s first major speech in office he expressed cautious hope at the prospects of increased cooperation with Russia.
“Let me make it clear right from the outset,” he said. “I am not a dreamer. There are some fundamental issues on which NATO and Russia disagree, and they will not disappear overnight. However, I do believe that it is possible for NATO and Russia to make a new beginning – and to enjoy a far more productive relationship in the future.”
This move, theoretically, could help move Russia towards a harder line on Iran. European leaders assembled in Brussels for a European Union summit expressed hope to this effect.
“I view the shift as a hopeful signal for overcoming difficulties with Russia when it comes to a uniform strategy to combat the threat of Iran together,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed. “I hope that Russia will attach the importance to the decision that it merits. From the point of view of the relationship between Europe and Russia, and between Russia, Europe and the United States [the policy shift] is extremely positive.”
Analysts, however, have cautioned against the assumption of Russian cooperation to follow even this highly-visible concession.
"Neither Iranian nor North Korean nuclear weapons were ever a big issue here, because they’re not seen as a direct threat against Russia," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.
The language from Russian officials has seemed to confirm this concern that Washington would be foolish to accept much in return for its betrayal of Eastern European allies.
"Those who are talking about a concession to Russia are primarily those who are looking for a bargaining chip in seeking extra dividends of some kind from us," said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, in remarks carried on the Interfax news agency. "In actual fact, the Americans have simply put their own mistake right. And we are not duty-bound to pay for someone to put their own mistakes right."
This tone was echoed by comments from the chairman of the international affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev. “This is a recognition by the Americans of the rightness of our arguments about the reality of the threat, or rather the lack of one [from Iran’s missiles]. Finally the Americans have agreed with us.”
President Obama seems to have yet to learn the power of perception in foreign affairs, especially when dealing with Russia. It is possible that the new White House plan, which involves deploying a system of existing submarines, is the most effective tool against Iranian aggression. The perception of appeasement of an emboldened Russia and betrayal of staunch allies, however, carries weight that could deal irreparable harm to American influence in the region.