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Obama: Missile defense plan not about Russia

President Barack Obama sharply dismisses criticism that Russian opposition influenced his decision to scrap a European missile defense system.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama sharply dismisses criticism that Russian opposition influenced his decision to scrap a European missile defense system, calling it merely a bonus if the leaders of Russia end up "a little less paranoid" about the U.S.

"My task here was not to negotiate with the Russians," Obama told CBS' "Face the Nation" in an interview for broadcast Sunday. "The Russians don't make determinations about what our defense posture is."

The president's comments were his first on the matter since he abruptly announced on Thursday that he was scuttling plans to deploy 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a related radar in the Czech Republic. That shield had been proposed under President George W. Bush.

Russia condemned it is a threat to its security despite years of U.S. assurances to the contrary.

In its place will be a different missile-defense plan relying on a network of sensors and interceptor missiles based at sea, on land and in the air. Obama says that adapts to the most pressing threat from Iran to U.S. troops and allies in Europe, potential attacks by short- and medium-range missiles.

Done to appease Russia?
Yet at home and abroad, Obama's decision immediately raised a political question of whether it was done in part to appease Russia and win its help in other areas, mainly in confronting the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran. That point was underscored when Russia lauded the change.

To Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, "This is going to be seen as a capitulation to the Russians, who had no real basis to object to what we were doing. And at the end of the day you empowered the Russians, you made Iran happy and you made the people in Eastern Europe wonder who we are as Americans."

In the CBS interview taped Friday, Obama was pressed on why he did not seek anything in exchange from Russia.

"Russia had always been paranoid about this, but George Bush was right. This wasn't a threat to them," Obama said. "And this program will not be a threat to them."

He added: "If the byproduct of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or nuclear development in Iran, you know, then that's a bonus."

Russia said Saturday that it will scrap a plan to deploy missiles near Poland since Obama dumped the planned missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin said Obama's move made the deployment of short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region unnecessary, and he called the U.S. president's decision a "victory of reason over ambitions."

Gates: U.S. not walking away from allies
Washington is counting on Moscow to help raise pressure on Tehran over its disputed nuclear program, although there are no clear signs that will happen.

Also Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserted that the United States is not walking away from European allies to appease Russia.

"Russia's attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue," Gates wrote in an essay in The New York Times. He said he would be surprised if Russia likes the replacement European missile defense plan much better.

Challenging Gates, Graham said, "If you are trying to tell me this has nothing to do with administration trying to get a better relationship with Russia, I don't believe you. What they did, in my view, undercut two good allies, the Poles and the Czech Republic."

Gates acknowledged that one criticism of the replacement plan is that it relies heavily on fresh intelligence about the Iranian missile threat. The U.S. now judges shorter-range missiles as a greater problem in the near term than the long-range missiles the old system was conceived to counter. But he suggested it would have been foolhardy to stick with a plan that had become obsolete before it was built.

"Having spent most of my career at the CIA, I am all too familiar with the pitfalls of over-reliance on intelligence assessments that can become outdated," wrote Gates, a former CIA director.

That system never moved past the blueprint stage, and would not have been fully fielded until at least 2017.

Part of the replacement system could be in place as soon as 2011, Gates said.

Graham appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."