STUTTGART, Germany -- When it was announced earlier this month that a Soviet built air base in rural Romania had been chosen to host some 200 sailors as part of U.S. missile defense plans, the mayor of the nearby town of Deveselu hailed the move.
“We can now look forward to a long era of good times,” Mayor George Beciu declared in the Romanian newspaper National Journal.
However, there was less enthusiasm in Moscow, where, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev cautioned that the U.S. missile defense efforts are threatening to derail plans for cooperation in other areas, such as nuclear arms reduction.
This week, President Barack Obama and Medvedev are expected to meet on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in France, and missile defense is certain to be a key topic of discussion, as the two sides attempt to find common ground.
Earlier this month, Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded to the U.S. plans in Romania with a demand that the U.S. provide legally binding guarantees that American and NATO missile defenses would not target Russian weaponry. Steven Pifer, an expert on arms control at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says that would require Senate ratification, and it is unlikely that enough legislators would support it.
If Medvedev can settle for political instead of legal assurances, future cooperation could come in the form of a jointly manned early warning center where Russians and Americans could potentially share information about missile threats, according to Pifer.
“If the Russians can move off this request for a start, there may be a way forward,” he said.
In Romania, the U.S. is expected to spend about $400 million as part of a plan to send a ground-based radar system to the country by 2015. Within the next three years, a gym, mess hall and barracks also will be constructed.
However, U.S. military officials say the U.S. mission and footprint in Romania will be limited. Still, given Russia’s reaction to the Romania plan, future compromises could prove elusive as the U.S. presses forward with other more controversial aspects of the program.
When Obama announced his European Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense in Sept. 2009, the plan focused on four phases of development. The first phase, which was launched earlier this year, involved the deployment of the sea-based Aegis weapon system in the Mediterranean. Phase Two involves the deployment of a similar land-based system to Romania by 2015, which can counter short- and medium-range threats posed by countries such as Iran.
However, phases three and four to be developed between 2018 and 2020, are where the serious opposition will likely reside, experts say. Those plans call for the development of weapons systems capable of countering intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The end cost for such a program remains unknown, and questions are emerging about whether allies in Europe are as committed to see the missile shield project through to completion.
“It (phases three and four) only exists on paper and I’m not convinced Europeans or Russians will support it,” said Oksana Antonenko, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“In Western Europe, missile defense is viewed as a cold war relic,” Antonenko said. “It doesn’t seem relevant to their immediate security needs and nobody is prepared to invest in it. It’s really seen as an eccentric American project.”
And while questions persist about the technical viability of European missile defense, political realities in the U.S. suggest Obama will likely remain committed to the program, even as some allies doubt the need for such a system, Antonenko said.
“No U.S. president can say they’re going to stop missile defense,” Antonenko said. “They need to be seen as moving forward. There is this perception in the U.S. that you have to be protected, whether there is a real threat or not.”
Europeans see things differently, according to Antonenko. That could mean the U.S. will be spending huge sums of money to protect Europe from a future threat that its allies are unwilling to subsidize for themselves.
“You’re asking [U.S.] taxpayers to spend a lot of money on defending Europe, and there is going to be a debate about why the homeland is not defended better,” said Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
“Russia is going to fight this no matter what, but we’ve got to stay the course,” Ellison said. “We’ve got to get ahead of it (the threat from Iran) rather than behind it. We need to be ahead on this for everybody.”