Throughout this mawkish missile-defense saga, President Bush has been talking to the Russians as if they were born yesterday. “Don’t worry, Vladimir, the Cold War is over,” Bush urged. And then he proceeded to bash Putin over Russia’s backsliding on democracy — as if Russian democracy was an issue when Boris Yeltsin was shelling the elected legislature.
More importantly, Putin has not been impressed by the notion that the U.S. plans to sight a missile interceptor system on Russia’s Western doorstep in order to better intercept ICBM’s fired from Iran or North Korea. Nor should he be; the argument is hard to take seriously. Missiles fired at the U.S. from North Korea would fly over the Pacific onto the U.S. West Coast, for one thing. Iran has no space program, and therefore no ICBM capability for the foreseeable future. If it were to attack the U.S. it would do so by targeting its imperial footprint on Iran’s doorstep — even if it used missiles, they would be short- or medium-range types, against which an interceptor system in Poland would have no relevance.
For all the media claims that Putin and Bush smoothed things over by talking nicely at the G-8 summit, what in fact transpired was that Putin, with a very polite and gracious smile, put Bush on the spot, by proposing that the U.S. sight its interceptor system in Azerbaijan. After all, the former southern Soviet Republic is far closer to Iran, and better able to offer the protective shield to Europe, as well.
Bush was taken aback. He had told the Russians to be more helpful; to “participate” in the U.S. plan. And that’s exactly what Putin was doing. But, of course, sighting the missile interceptors on Russia’s southern front would make them entirely useless against Russian missiles fired westward. So what Putin has done is called the U.S. bluff on the real intention of the shield it plans to put in Poland and the Czech Republic.
It’s not hard to see why the Russians assume that its real purpose is to target Russia’s own missile capability — in the longer term. The missile shield system being deployed right now at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars is actually no threat to anyone’s missiles — it has yet to pass the most basic test of consistently hitting a missile whose flight path has been pre-programmed into the interceptor’s guidance, rather than one that may be trying to evade defenses. But by deploying an ineffective system, Bush is trying to put down a marker: It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that their ultimate goal is as a seat-warmer for a more technologically capable system, to be deployed later, which would have the capacity to attack Russian missiles in the boost phase (missiles are more vulnerable before they leave the earth’s atmosphere, but to target them in the boost phase, interceptors have to be as close as possible to their firing point).
M.K. Bahdrakumar suggests that the U.S. moves are driven by the need to consolidate its own increasingly fragile geopolitical position — eliminate Russia’s strategic parity with the U.S. and prevent China from establishing anything close to a nuclear balance of terror, as well as reasserting its leadership over Western Europe as the platform for its continued global dominance.
And Martin Jacques has argued that “The starting point for understanding the deterioration in the relationship between the US and Russia lies in Washington, rather than Moscow.” He writes:
After 1989, Russia was a defeated power. Despite the fine words and some limited gestures, the Americans have treated it like one. Their policy has been one of encirclement. Following the end of the cold war, there was much discussion concerning the point of Nato. In the event, it was reinvented as a means of reducing Russia’s reach on its western frontiers and seeking to isolate it. Its former east European client states were admitted to Nato, as were the Baltic states. It now finds itself militarily encircled to its west and, in central Asia, to its south. It is hardly surprising that Russia is unhappy about these developments. Not only are its reasonable security concerns being trampled on, but it also feels it is being humiliated.
As John le Carre once noted, the right side lost the Cold War but the wrong side won. Bush tells Putin that the Cold War is over, but it is Bush who is behaving as if it isn’t. His contempt for international law and international consensus even as he goes about invading countries and threatening to bomb others is hardly encouraging to a humiliated power now beginning to pick itself up thanks to oil revenue increases. It’s no wonder the Russians are pushing back, and it may be a sign of more to come — and not only from Moscow.
Bush’s father knew the Cold War was over; that was why he took the whole matter of going to war in Kuwait very patiently through the U.N. But the current president wants act out the fantasy of every college-age Reaganaut of the 1980s, who believes the Soviet Union collapsed because Reagan threatened to build a missile shield and made speeches demanding that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall.
And it tells you how bad things have gotten with U.S. unilateralism that Vladimir Putin, almost as nasty a piece of work as Dick Cheney, can show himelf to be more adept at diplomacy than his counterpart in Washington.