It was the nightmare of nuclear attack from Iran or North Korea which convinced President Bush to demand a protective shield in Europe. It envisaged a Czech radar system controlling missiles launched from Poland. But the prospect of American weapons so close to its borders set alarm bells ringing in Russia.
As an alternative, the Kremlin offered Washington a share of its own early-warning system in Azerbaijan, where a similar radar and missile base keeps watch. But no, Bush refused the offer, preferring to push ahead with his European option. Moscow’s offer had merit, the Azeri station being on the same trajectory as central Europe, under the presumed flightpath of any missile launched from Iran. Under intense pressure from Washington, Warsaw and Prague agreed to host the system. The deal was sealed by the Czech and Polish prime ministers and Bush’s voice abroad, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Increasingly irritated, Moscow adopted Cold War-like language and threatened to put missiles in Kaliningrad, on the very edge of Europe. Poland and the Czech Republic were officially happy with a stronger defence against a revitalised Russia, but many ordinary people were not. Protests recalled similar demonstrations over the cruise missile in the 1980s. In the end, President Obama has been convinced by his military men that Iran does not yet pose a significant threat and the anti-missile shield has been dropped – at least for now. It’s allowed him to make good his promise to reset relations with Russia, a pledge made during his first days in power.