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Medvedev Threatens, While Team Obama Prepares for Defense Cuts

The Russian bear is growling. Again.

Russia will train its missiles on U.S. missile defenses in Europe unless we and our NATO partners agree to terms with Moscow regarding how the system can be built and operated. So declared Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently.

It’s certainly not the first time Russia has threatened retaliation for U.S. efforts to defend our allies from ballistic missile attack. As far back as 2008, the Kremlin threatened Poland for its willingness to host two-stage Ground-Based Midcourse Defense interceptors—part of a proposed shield to protect Europe from Iranian missiles.

Russia says it want to be included as “an equal partner” in missile defense “cooperation.” But this means different things at different times. Sometimes Moscow demands a veto over the U.S. ability to protect itself and its allies. Sometimes the Kremlin says it wants to protect one sector of Europe and let the United States protect the rest.

Yet, despite not being able to find a common ground, the U.S. continues to put proposals for cooperation on the table. So far, Russia has turned down every single one… and then proceeded to claim that the U.S. is not willing to cooperate. Needless to say, throughout this kabuki, Russia never offers reciprocal steps regarding its air defense and missile defense capabilities.

The latest Russian threats may ring completely hollow, however. Not because of anything that Moscow might or might not do, but because of pending defense cuts in Washington.

On Nov. 14, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote that the Pentagon would be forced to terminate the European missile defense in the face of two rounds of defense cuts slated under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

That would be convenient for the Obama administration, which wrote off any prospects for a truly effective homeland defense in last year’s New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty with the Russian Federation. The Treaty imposes undefined but nevertheless sweeping restrictions on the U.S. missile defense system. Moscow has repeatedly stated that the Treaty would remain viable only if the U.S. does not improve its missile defenses “qualitatively or quantitatively.”

Medvedev is doing the politically smart thing—jumping out in front of the bandwagon so he can claim credit for “facing down” the U.S. when the money for defense of the U.S. and its allies dries up. The administration, on the other hand, conveniently gets to blame defense cuts for not having to proceed with a missile defense plan it never much cared for anyway.

Baker Spring is the F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Michaela Bendikova is a research assistant in Heritage’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.