Moscow's muted contentment over the about-face in US missile defense plans in Europe may not last long. The Pentagon, it seems, is considering moving anti-missile radar systems from Russia's European front yard to its backyard, the Caucasus.
On September 17, US President Barack Obama announced that Washington would not move ahead with plans to place an anti missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland. Russia had long been a vocal opponent of the plan, first developed by former president George W. Bush's administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Obama indicated that the missile defense system's primary focus would be on Iran, which is widely suspected of developing nuclear weapons capabilities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
At a briefing that same day, Gen. James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Pentagon was considering whether to deploy an early-warning radar detection system in the Caucasus. "It's probably more likely to be in the Caucasus that we would base [the radar], because it's to get the early tracks," Cartwright said in reference to early warnings -- or "trackings" -- about incoming missile strikes.
US defense officials have not specified the radar's new proposed location, but some Georgian and Russian officials and commentators have been quick to suggest that the Pentagon has Georgia in mind. These analysts said that if the United States is thinking about the South Caucasus, Georgia would be the best place for the radar deployment. Armenia, they say, would not wish to anger its close strategic ally Russia by hosting the radar, while Azerbaijan would not want to put its already strained relationship with Iran to the test.
Russian military analyst Vladislav Shurygin said that intelligence provided by the radar might also help Georgia to protect itself from Russian missiles. "We should not have any illusions about the US plans," he told the Regnum news agency. US officials have long maintained that the defense system would focus on Iran, rather than Russia.
One Georgian MP who is close to President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration cautioned that commentators should not jump to conclusions. "The US decision ? dovetails with our [security] needs," Davit Darchiashvili, a member of parliament for the governing United National Movement, told the pro-government Rustavi-2 television channel. So long as the radar is stationed in the Caucasus, Georgian security needs would likely be met. "This is the most important thing, Darchiashvili said. "it is not of crucial significance as to where and how these defense systems will be deployed."
[Editor's Note: Davit Darchiashvili is the former director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, which is affiliated with the New York-based Open Society Institute (OSI). EurasiaNet operates under OSI's auspices, but functions separately from the Open Society Georgia Foundation.]
Political leaders in Moscow offered tepid praise for the Obama administration's decision to reorient its missile defense plans. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that despite the US gesture, Moscow would not be inclined to go along with any move by Washington to tighten sanctions on Iran as a means of compelling Tehran's cooperation on the nuclear issue. Lavrov described any possible attempt to heap additional sanctions on Iran as a "serious mistake," according to a report distributed by the Interfax news agency.