The US today scrapped plans for a missile defence shield in eastern Europe that had raised new tensions with Russia.
Nato’s chief hailed the move as “a positive step” and a Russian analyst said President Barack Obama’s decision will increase the chances that Russia will cooperate more closely with the United States in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Czech Premier Jan Fischer told reporters that Mr Obama phoned him overnight to say that “his government is pulling out of plans to build a missile defence radar on Czech territory” and site the missiles in Poland.
He said Mr Obama assured him that the “strategic cooperation” between the Czech Republic and the US would continue, and that Washington considers the Czechs among its closest allies.
The plan, proposed by the Bush administration, aimed to defend the United States and its European allies against a possible missile attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. In all, 10 interceptor rockets were to have been stationed in Poland and a radar system based in the Czech Republic.
But Russia was livid over the prospect of having US rockets in countries so close to its territory, and the Obama administration has sought to improve strained ties with the Kremlin.
“The US president’s decision is a well-thought and systematic one,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.
“It reflects understanding that any security measure can’t be built entirely on the basis of one nation.”
“Now we can talk about restoration of (the) strategic partnership between Russia and the United States,” Kosachev added.
Alexei Arbatov, head of the Russian Academy of Science’s Centre for International Security, said that the US was giving in on missile defence to get more cooperation from Russia on Iran.
“The United States is reckoning that by rejecting the missile-defence system or putting it off to the far future, Russia will be inclined together with the United States to take a harder line on sanctions against Iran,” he said.
Czechs and Poles, along with some other Eastern Europeans, have complained of what many perceive as neglect by the Obama administration.
That, in turn, has prompted a US diplomatic effort to reassure the countries that America still values them as friends and partners.
Mr Fischer said after a review of the missile defence system, the US now considers the threat of an attack using short- and mid-range missiles greater than one using long-range rockets.
“That’s what the Americans assessed as the most serious threat,” and Mr Obama’s decision was based on that, he said.
Mr Obama took office undecided about the European system and said he would study it. His administration never sounded enthusiastic about it, and European allies have been preparing for an announcement that the White House would not complete the shield as designed.
Mr Obama himself had hinted that the US was rethinking the plan. In a major foreign policy speech in April in Prague, he said Washington would proceed with developing the system as long as Iran posed a threat to US and European security.
The Czech government had backed the radar system despite fierce opposition from the public.
Critics feared the Czech Republic would be targeted by terrorists if it agreed to host the radar system, which was planned for the Brdy military installation 50 miles Prague, the capital.