It looks like missile defense will make for some drama at the Moscow summit next week - responding to Russia's hardening stance on missile defense the U.S. administration is making it clear that it is not ready to offer any firm commitment regarding the missile defense deployment in Eastern Europe. Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior White House director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs, told The Wall Street Journal that the United States is "not going to reassure or give or trade...anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense."
It is quite clear that at this point Russia's strong opposition to the missile defense site in Europe is probably the only thing that could save the project - without that opposition the idea is likely to quietly die on its own. (A colleague who returned from a major missile defense conference held about a month ago said that the industry has already got the message and is actively looking for other ideas that would be easier to sell to the skeptical public.) It appears that the U.S. administration would be happy to let this process take its course, but for internal political reasons it cannot possibly open itself to charges that it traded the missile defense away.
One would think that Russia would understand the reasons why Obama can go only so far on missile defense. But the problem is that that Russia does not necessarily want to resolve the issue - far too many people in Moscow get a lot of political mileage out of the controversy and wouldn't mind keeping it alive. This would make any compromise very difficult.
To make things clear, the United States has only itself to blame. As someone noted, the United States often practices North Korea-style politics - it creates a problem and then demands a price to make it go away. It looks like the administration understands that it has to come up with something positive - it apparently wants to seriously explore Russia's offer to use its radars in Gabala and Armavir. But that interest alone might not be enough - some words would need to be said about the elements of missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic.
One way to deal with the issue would be to return to the idea of "tying together the activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat", which was articulated by Robert Gates in October 2007. This idea was later killed in the interagency process in the Bush administration, but the Obama administration could certainly revive it (as a bonus, the Bush legacy could help deal with inevitable criticism from the right). That way, the Gabala/Armavir enterprise would not even be part of the missile defense system, which is still quite controversial in Russia. Rather, the U.S.-Russian cooperation would concentrate on threat assessment - a much more reasonable and useful undertaking than missile defense. I certainly hope that the Obama team could put together a reasonable proposal along these lines.