Tuesday 20 August 2019

Russians can't shield delight over US move

Barack Obama hopes scrapping missile defence shield in Vladimir Putin's backyard will secure Russia's help on Iran
Barack Obama hopes scrapping missile defence shield in Vladimir Putin's backyard will secure Russia's help on Iran

Andrew Osborne in Moscow

VLADIMIR Putin will allow himself one of his trademark thin-lipped smiles this morning. Washington's decision to scrap plans for a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe is a strategic victory for the Kremlin.

Mr Putin had repeatedly said no to the US initiative, arguing it had unacceptable implications for Russia's security.

Widely trailed but highly significant, President Barack Obama's decision hands the Kremlin a coup that will boost Mr Putin's influence at home and abroad.

Never mind that the Americans may have genuinely concluded that they did not need the shield. It is perception that counts.

The US about-turn therefore represents a step change in the two countries' relationship, as diplomatic nicety becomes substance. Mr Obama's diplomatic "reset" with Russia now has real teeth.

For the Kremlin's spin doctors, it is as if all their Christmases have come at once. In the coming days, weeks and months, ordinary Russians will be told that the policy reversal is proof that Russia is once again a serious world player.

The big question now is what, if anything, is Russia ready to do in return?

Washington wants Moscow to back tough sanctions against Iran to curb the Islamic republic's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions.

It would also like Russia to make deep cuts in its own nuclear arsenal when it renegotiates a key arms control treaty due to expire in December. And last, but not least, it wants Russia's continued help in keeping US troops in Afghanistan well-supplied.

IRAN will be the toughest issue to crack. The Russian government has so far appeared split on the sanctions issue with Mr Putin strongly opposing the idea and President Dmitry Medvedev apparently remaining open to such a move.

Russia has embraced Iran as strongly as the US has shunned it. It has helped construct its first nuclear reactor, sold it arms, and publicly defended its right to develop nuclear energy. However, it is known to have grave misgivings about a nuclear-armed Iran.

Few doubt that Kremlin pressure, even behind the scenes, could yield real results. There are some though, notably in the former Soviet bloc, who will be wondering whether the US is being too accommodating to Moscow. Many politicians in the missile shield's putative host countries -- Poland and the Czech Republic -- will feel jilted by Washington.

There will be fears too that the Kremlin will see this as a vindication and be equally uncompromising on other issues. Will Russia be magnanimous in victory?

Or will it, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said in the past, choose to frame the decision as an overdue correction of a Bush-era mistake rather than a real concession that requires reciprocity? That remains the 64,000-ruble question. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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