Where the shield will be missed

In announcing his decision yesterday to scrap his predecessor's plans for a broad missile defence system in eastern Europe, President Obama gave a boost to frozen relations with Russia that may have come at the expense of ties with Poland and the Czech Republic – both former Soviet satellites.

The major security policy reversal came after months of review of the controversial missile defence plans that had long irked Russia and reflected a reassessment of intelligence that found Iran was more rapidly developing its short and medium-range missiles – which could reach Europe, Israel and most Arab states – than its intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities that could threaten the US.

It also brought Obama closer to delivering on his promise to "reset" relations with Russia after years of taut relations. Former President Bush irked Moscow after he took a second look into Putin's soul, then bullishly pushed for missile defence plans Russia saw as a threat to its own nuclear and deterrent, strongly advocated for Georgia and Ukraine's ill-fated membership into Nato, and threw his backing behind Georgia in its short war with Russia last summer.

In what could prove a costly gamble, the Obama administration hopes it can put Bush's missile plans on ice in return for Moscow's co-operation to pressure Tehran to curb its nuclear programme, enact major cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals and open access to key supply routes to Afghanistan.

As word of the decision to cancel the scheduled radar system in the Czech Republic and the ground-based interceptors in Poland spread like wildfire, the Obama administration scrambled to soothe its worried European allies. The timing was anything but fortuitous. The date 17 September is seared in Poles' minds as the grim day in 1939 when the Red Army invaded their country before Hitler and Stalin split the spoils. Now, 70 years later, Poland feels defeated as Obama shelves a plan many Poles had come to view as a measure to buttress their security against a Russia that is once again on the rise and too close for comfort – an underlying theme of Bush's plans.

Republicans were quick to pounce on the move, which House of Representatives' minority leader John Boehner termed an "ill-advised decision" and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby lambasted it as an arrangement to "appease" Russia that was "misguided at best and dangerous at worst."

Administration officials dismissed any talk Washington was hanging out its eastern European allies to dry. But it has also effectively handed yet another diplomatic crisis to Nato as the already strained transatlantic military alliance seeks to drum up support for the war in Afghanistan amid spiralling violence and waning public backing for the eight-year conflict.

The transition toward "stronger, smarter and swifter defences," as Obama put it, also lessens long-held US fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East fuelled by Iran's developing nuclear capabilities.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey – the only Nato country bordering Iran – are some of America's best allies in the region and have all shown interest in developing their own civilian nuclear programmes – technology that, if not checked, could be harnessed for weapons. Faced with an Israel reputed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed nation, and a Shia Iran making progress on its controversial programme, these Sunni-majority states were desperate for the types of reassurances the Obama administration's plans could provide.

Olivia Hampton, a journalist based in Washington DC, covering US politics and military affairs.