© Photo: www.navy.mil

NATO Deputy Secretary-General, Alexander Vershbow, has confirmed that the US is abandoning plans to deploy SM-3 Block IIB ballistic interceptors as part of its Eastern European missile defense plan. It means that the fourth leg of the program won’t be implemented. Nevertheless, Moscow is cautious about the issue. NATO is not surprised, neither are experts.

US plans to deploy elements of its missile defense program in Europe have been a bone of contention in the relations with Moscow over the past several years. It was supposed to be the four stage program, and Russia was especially concerned over the final stage which suggested placing SM-3 Block IIB ballistic interceptors in Europe. Last year President Barack Obama promised to become more flexible in relations with Moscow on the missile defense issue. Some progress in the negotiations has taken place – either because of Obama’s promise or amid US defense budget cuts. In the middle of March the Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said that Washington would abandon its plans to deploy interceptors in Poland and Romania and would refocus missile defenses to its west coast.

NATO Deputy Secretary-General, Alexander Vershbow, also commented on the issue by saying that the US would not just abandon plans to deploy SM-3 Block IIB in Europe but would also suspend their industrial production. Russia’s reaction was cautious. The country’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Moscow does not view this as a concession. “This decision of the US authorities does not remove our previous concerns but adds even new ones”, he said.

The deputy head of the Institute of Contemporary International Studies, Ivan Safranchuk: “It is worth mentioning that abandoning the fourth leg of the program means that there will be no interceptors in Europe but all the goals that were supposed to be reached from Europe now will be reached directly from the US territory. That is why Russia is still concerned about these additional measures the US is going to take as part of its missile defense program and how they could affect the strategic balance between the two countries.”

The U.S. does not seem to be surprised at Russia’s reaction. Mr. Vershbow thinks that the sides have spent too much time exchanging criticism over the missile defense issue and thus find it difficult to switch to a new level of negotiations. Restoring mutual trust will take some time. “The main task now is to continue productive talks both on political and technical aspects of the issue”, Mr. Vershbow said.