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Russia opts for long game in missile shield fight

Reuters | July 11, 2007
Oleg Shchedrov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has decided that if it cannot beat U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe, the next best option is to join Washington in finding an alternative system that both sides can stomach.

Russia reacted furiously to Washington's initiative to station elements of a missile shield near Russia's borders, threatening in response to target its own missiles at Europe and prompting talk of a new Cold War.

But in the past month President Vladimir Putin has changed his tactics, toning down the threats and instead proposing a collective missile shield in which Russia and European states would participate along with the United States.

"There is definitely some kind of evolution," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy head of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a Moscow thinktank. "A confrontational approach is giving way to a more balanced attitude."

"His (Putin's) initiative acknowledges the fact that a global missile defense system makes sense and we have a contribution to offer," Kremenyuk said. "Taking part in such a system would be in Moscow's interests, to make sure it is not targeted against Russia."

That does not mean the Kremlin has entirely dropped its threats. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said last week that if the U.S. shield plan went ahead, Russia would bring new missiles right up to its border with the European Union.

But a Kremlin official signaled that was part of a carefully coordinated approach: a stick to complement the carrot proffered by Putin. "Ivanov does not make wild statements," said the official.


The United States wants to base interceptor missiles and a radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, part of a shield it says is needed to protect against missile attacks from what it calls "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea.

Moscow says the plan will upset the delicate strategic balance and officials there say they suspect Russia, not the "rogue states", is the real target.

Putin's counter-proposals -- which include offering the U.S. military use of a Russian-operated radar station and a centre in Moscow to share data on missile attacks -- have been received cautiously in Washington.

Russian analysts said the offer was more than just a bluff to put a spanner in the works of the U.S. plan. "This is a pretty serious proposal," said Gennady Yevstafyev, analyst with the PIR-Center think tank in Moscow.

U.S. President George W. Bush said the offer was "very innovative" and worthy of study, but gave no firm commitments when he met Putin last week at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, on the Atlantic coast.

In fact, say analysts, the Kremlin itself does not expect Bush to say "yes" to the proposals.

"Should Bush accept the Russian offer, he would have to review the basics of missile defense plans and forget about billions of dollars already invested in the program," said independent analyst Alexander Goltz. "It's hard to imagine."

But Russia is playing a long game: if Bush cannot climb down on the missile shield plan, whoever replaces him after the U.S. presidential election in 2008 may have more room for maneuver.

Its approach in the meantime is to lock Washington into technical discussions on Putin's proposals in the hope that these will turn into a firm deal after Bush steps down.

"It seems the best tactic now is to maintain a professional dialogue and engage in practical projects that the presidential successors will have to follow," said Kremenyuk.

Russia is in no hurry. Though Putin is due to step down next year, he is widely expected to retain influence, and his successor is likely to be a member of his own team who will stick to the same foreign policies.

And Russia, buoyed by a booming economy and flexing its muscles again on the world stage, believes it is powerful enough to get its way in the end.

"We can afford to take a gentle approach because Russia now is in good shape," said Yevstafyev.

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