FrontPage Magazine
July 9, 2007
By Alan W. Dowd

Presidents Bush and Putin have wrapped up their 24-hour summit on the shores of Maine. Given that their talks were dominated by plans for what Putin called a “strategic partnership” on missile defense, the mini-summit is an indication of how far the two powers have come since the end of the Cold War—and how far apart they remain. 

A little background may be helpful: Spurred by the reckless behavior of rogue regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran, the US and its closest allies in Europe, Asia and the Pacific have been building a truly international missile defense system (IMD) for the better part of six years. Bush laid the groundwork by notifying Putin of America’s intentions in 2001 and assuring the Russians that IMD wouldn't upset the US-Russia deterrent balance. He underscored his words by offering to slash the US nuclear arsenal by two-thirds. With Putin acquiescing, Bush then scrapped the anachronistic ABM Treaty.  

In February 2003, the Blair government agreed to software and hardware upgrades of ground-based radar stations in the UK. Denmark has since approved similar upgrades at radar and satellite-tracking stations in Thule, Greenland. 

In December 2003, then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gave military officials the go-ahead for construction of a layered missile defense system, in close partnership with the US. Word of Australia's intention to join the IMD partnership also came in December 2003, when its foreign minister officially informed parliament of the “strategic decision to put in place a long-term measure to counter potential threats to Australia's security and its interests from ballistic missile proliferation.” Australia signed a 25-year pact on missile defense cooperation in 2004.  

Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway are also cooperating with Washington on elements of missile defense. And not surprisingly NATO has essentially blessed the IMD coalition, vowing to “pursue a three-track approach to missile defense” that includes deployment of theatre missile defenses; an assessment of the full implications of basing parts of the US-built  system in Europe; and continued “cooperation with Russia on theatre missile defense as well as consultations on related issues.” 

Now, the US, Poland and the Czech Republic are hammering out the final pieces of a plan to base missile-tracking radars on Czech territory and missile-killing interceptors on Polish territory.   

Which brings us back to the mini-summit in Maine, where Putin elaborated on the proposal he floated in June to use existing facilities in Azerbaijan—instead of bases in Poland and the Czech Republic—to support the nascent IMD system. Specifically, Putin proposed opening a joint information-exchange center in Moscow and Brussels to monitor possible launches (something akin to a NORAD for Europe and Russia); modernizing radar bases in Azerbaijan (it’s worth noting that Azerbaijan is supposed to be an independent nation, just like Poland and the Czech Republic, but that apparently is not an issue for Putin); and even building brand-new early-warning radars in southern Russia.  

“In this case,” Putin explained, “there would be no need to place facilities in Europe—I mean these facilities in [the] Czech Republic and the missile base in Poland.”  In short, he offered Washington a lot, just to prevent Bush from planting the IMD system in Eastern Europe. 

But why? Putin knows the Cold War is over. He himself says America and Russia “do not look at each other through the sights of our weapons systems.” And he knows this limited system is designed to defend against countries with limited capabilities—it couldn’t knock out even a fraction of Russia’s 5,800 nuclear warheads.  

Perhaps the answer is that he doesn’t really believe that Cold War is over, or that NATO and Russia are no longer enemies. After all, friends don’t usually cut off energy supplies to friends, yet that’s what Russia did to Ukraine, Poland and Germany. Friends don’t compare friends to the Third Reich, yet that’s what Putin did at a World War II anniversary in May, with not-so-veiled references equating the US and NATO to Hitler’s war machine. Friends don’t conduct war games to send a message to their friends, yet that’s what Russia did in partnership with China in 2005. Friends don’t throw tantrums and launch wars in cyberspace when neighbors assert their sovereignty, yet that’s what Russia did vis-à-vis Estonia this spring. (At least some of the cyber-salvos that crippled Estonia in May were traced back to the Russian president’s administrative offices. And the mobs of angry Russians that laid siege to the Estonian embassy in Moscow, stalked the Estonian ambassador and fomented disturbances inside Estonia were coordinated and/or countenanced by Russian officials.)  

Perhaps it’s a delaying tactic aimed at allowing Russia to retool its arsenal. Before scoffing at this, reread the preceding paragraph and then recall what the commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, said earlier this year: After talking about withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, he bragged about the ease with which he could retarget the arsenal under his command to strike Poland and the Czech Republic. “The Strategic Missile Forces,” he said matter-of-factly, “will be capable of carrying out this task.”  

Or perhaps the answer has nothing to do with a new Cold War, or US-Russian relations, or where IMD assets will be targeted. Perhaps Putin is simply expressing Russia’s latent feelings about Eastern Europe. After all, the countries in this swath of Europe represent the frontiers and ramparts of the Russian empire at its height. To be sure, it was officially known as the “Soviet Empire” at the time, and it operated under the Marxist myth of post-nationalism. But it was always animated and engineered by Russians; it always had as its main, if unspoken, purpose protecting Russia from the contagions of the West. It was the Russian empire revived and renamed. 

Hence, to Russian eyes, the placement of anti-missile systems on Polish and Czech soil is encroachment on their sphere of influence. After watching the Czech Republic and Poland dissolve the Warsaw Pact, join the US-led NATO alliance, and enter the EU’s free-trade club, this must be difficult, perhaps even painful, for Russia. 

Of course, it’s not as difficult or painful, as Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and other East Europeans might remind us, as living under the Soviet heel for almost half-a-century—or living as orphans in a no-man’s for a decade. 

If Moscow’s reaction to basing IMD elements in Poland and the Czech Republic is something like a reflex honed by years of habits and routine, then the NATO alliance must help Putin and his successors break that habit. Going forward with the IMD system, in a transparent manner, is a good way to do so.