LONDON -- A flood of new political and military possibilities was unleashed yesterday when U.S. President Barack Obama pulled the plug on a proposed missile-defence system in Eastern Europe that has served for two years as an anger-provoking barrier between Russia and the West.
By cancelling the project at Russia's request and replacing it with a more informal and multilateral system of mobile defences, the map of international politics has been redrawn by Washington. The brick-wall politics of the George W. Bush era have given way, very suddenly, to the new foreign policy of Mr. Obama, one that is either more fluid and realistic, or more weak and risky, depending whom you ask.
Behind this simple act are a new set of forces governing international relations: a new and more dependent relationship between the West and Russia, a diminished sense of imminent threat from Iran, a renewed push for multilateral nuclear disarmament, and a reduced desire to build a chain of allies along Russia's western border.
Though it never amounted to more than some empty fields in southern Poland and the Czech Republic, the proposed U.S. missile-defence system has stood for two years as an awkward barrier to normal relations between Washington, Eastern Europe, Russia and NATO. Behind its demise is the fact that the United States and NATO badly need Russia's co-operation now in the Afghan war and in efforts to reduce the threat of Iran.
Attempts to make progress on these fronts have perpetually been stalled by Moscow's anger at the proposed missile base.
Russia will now be a partner. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, plans to use a major speech this morning to announce "a new beginning" with Russia, including new co-operation in the Afghanistan war, his aides said yesterday.
In fact, Moscow had already granted Washington a major concession. It removed its opposition to military bases in Kyrgyzstan being used as supply bases for the Afghan war and is allowing supply flights to fly over Russian territory, a tactically vital move that, according to those familiar with the talks, was conditional on the United States agreeing to abandon its missile base.
The price, one that Mr. Obama appears willing to pay, is the loss of a strong alliance built during the Bush years between Washington and the former Soviet colonies of Eastern Europe.
The anger was palpable in Prague and Warsaw yesterday, as leaders there learned, apparently without advance warning, that years of financial assistance and diplomacy from Washington, and years spent reassuring their citizens that the high-powered radar station in the Czech Republic and the 10 long-range interceptor missiles in Poland would protect them, had ended in a reversal.
As if to drive a symbolic stake into the relationship, Mr. Obama's announcement was made on the 70th anniversary of the day the Soviet Union invaded Poland, an occupation that effectively lasted until 1989.
"This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence," former Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek told reporters yesterday. "It puts us in a position wherein we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that's a certain threat."
This was the paradox of the missile-defence system: While Washington had long insisted that it was designed solely to counter intercontinental missiles from Iran and North Korea headed toward the United States, it was immensely popular among Eastern Europeans, and immensely unpopular among Russians, because both groups firmly believed it would function as a deterrent to future Russian aggression.
Indeed, Polish President Lech Kaczynski went so far as to declare, during the Russian-Georgian conflict of August, 2008, that the conflict demonstrated the need for such a missile-defence system.
As a result, the anti-missile installation, without having been built, came to function as a new "iron curtain" between East and West, reinforced by the Bush administration's decision to attempt to expand NATO's membership right up to Russia's border in Ukraine and Georgia.
Mr. Obama entered office to discover that some of his key policy goals - a reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons, a containment of Iran's and North Korea's potential nuclear ambitions - were being thwarted by Russian hostility toward the missile-defence system, whose strategic value was never firmly established.
The timing of the announcement was important, as the next several weeks will see a number of key U.S.-led talks that will be aided by Russia's co-operation.
Foremost is a meeting next Thursday of the UN Security Council in which Mr. Obama had hoped to pass a strong resolution on nuclear disarmament. Russia had blocked it, largely because of the missile-defence project.
That will be followed, a week later, by talks between members of the Security Council and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. Several Western nations are seeking to impose threats of oil and gas sanctions against Iran unless there is more openness about the nuclear program. Russia's co-operation is believed crucial to making these threats viable.