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October, 9, 2009—With the Obama Administration’s new missile defense policy almost one month old and better understood by the members of NATO and Russia, there is hope that the Russians will now engage the US and NATO in constructive talks that yield real results in dealing with the Iranian ballistic missile threat, Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said Thursday.

“Our sense is that the Russians are taking a more objective look and they may be less inclined to throw up political conditions or obstacles to make it difficult,” he told reporters in Washington, D.C. Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, will travel to Moscow next week, and missile defense cooperation will be one item on the agenda, said Vershbow. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will then travel to the Russian capitol, he said. “Our hope is now that the discussions will begin in earnest,” he said.

President Obama announced on Sept. 17 his decision to scrap the Bush-era plan to station land-based missiles in Poland and a large radar system in the Czech Republic to counter Iranian missiles in favor of a new four-phased approach that relies initially on sea-based interceptors and deployable radars to deal with shorter range threats and later grows to incorporate more robust defenses both on European soil and at sea to counter longer range missiles.

The Russian, having adamantly opposed the Bush plan, have perceived this new tack as less threatening, even though, Vershbow said, it will provide, “if anything, a more robust missile defense capability” than was envisioned under the Bush plan.

While Russia’s initial sense of euphoria over the decision—which was perceived in some circles as a unilateral US accommodation to Russia—has faded now that the details of the Obama plan are more widely understood and misperceptions corrected, the Russians “are still positive,” and the climate is good for moving forward, said Vershbow, who just returned from consultations in Moscow, Kiev, Vilnius, and Brussels on missile defense.

He acknowledged that achieving substantive missile defense cooperation with Russia has been a bridge too far in the past. “We’ve never been able to get very far,” he said.

This time, however, the US hopes that Russia, which appears to be recognizing the reality of Iran’s missile advancements, will work on a common assessment of the Iranian missile threat and then use that as the basis to proceed on other fronts, such as actually establishing the long-discussed and agreed-to joint data exchange center in Moscow for the sharing of satellite data on missile launches.

The Russians have also expressed in the past a willingness in principal to tie early warning data from their own radars into the European missile defense system. One of these is located in southern Russia, the other in Azerbaijan.

“We have said that we would still be very interested in seeing if the Russians would be willing to contribute their radars as part of a common early warning system,” said Vershbow. Other nations like Ukraine have also come forward saying they have radars that could contribute, he noted.

Vershbow reiterated the Administration stance that the new missile defense plan does not in any way signify a reduced commitment by the US to the security of Central and Eastern Europe. On the contrary, he stated, “This is a stronger way of dealing with real missile threats.” And “it affirms” the US commitment to the security of the nations in those areas, he said.

In fact, he said, the US will be discussing with Poland whether, under the new plan, the Poles will accept basing land-based SM-3 interceptor missiles on their territory around 2015. And, there is US interest in basing some of the command and control elements of the new missile defense architecture in the Czech Republic, he said.

“Even though there was some initial confusion and shock by the suddenness of our announcement [on Sept. 17], we are seeing increasing support” for it, even in those two nations, he said.

(For more, see Thursday’s Washington Post report.)

(Transcript of Sept. 17 Pentagon press briefing)

(White House fact sheet on missile defense policy for Europe)