February 20, 2007

Putin Pitches Fit Over Missile Shield

The decision of eastern European nations to base portions of a missile shield intended to protect Europe from Iranian attack has drawn the ire of Vladimir Putin. The Russian autocrat has threatened to aim Russian missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic for its participation in the missile shield program:

Russia threatened to train its missiles on Poland and the Czech Republic yesterday after the two countries signaled they would host a controversial US missile defence shield despite vehement objections from the Kremlin.

The warning came hours after Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek and his Polish counterpart Jaroslaw Kaczynski told a press conference in Warsaw that their response to the US proposal, made last month, would "most likely be positive."

The Pentagon has asked to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic — two former Warsaw Pact countries that are now EU and Nato members — as part of the first global integrated missile defence shield in Europe.

Yesterday Gen Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, warned that the proposed locations of the defensive shield would be targeted if Poland and the Czech Republic accepted the proposal.

He also repeated a threat to pull out of a Cold War treaty restricting the production of intermediate range missiles capable of striking Europe.

Putin has clearly decided to push the West into a new cold war. He wants to go back to a Kremlin that asserts its power on its western frontier by threats and intimidation. As he gets closer to the end of his official term in office, he almost appears eager to find arguments with NATO and the EU, perhaps as a straw man for an excuse to retain his grip on power.

The idea that the missile shield somehow targets Russia is absurd. The Russian Army would not be held back by any such defense, and they have plenty of divisions to send across the Poland-Belarus border if Putin so chose. Russia already has thousands of missiles to shoot at Europe and elsewhere. The treaty on mid-range missiles did not dismantle existing rockets but proscribed production of replacements. Putin will find that an abrogation of that treaty will result in production of plenty new missiles in Europe, and Europe is a lot closer to the Kremlin than it used to be.

One has to wonder what game Putin has decided to play. After a long period of Russian engagement with the West, Putin seems determined to return to the traditional Great Game nonsense of Russian emperors. He has courted terrorist states such as Iran and Iraq, actively protecting them from the consequences of their instransigence towards the global community. He has played games with energy deliveries to Europe in barely-veiled threats that lacked any kind of subtlety about his projection of power. Days ago, he gave a speech so belligerent that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had to explicitly state that one Cold War was enough.

Putin wants to make a case for his ascension to Emperor, in fact if not in name. In doing so, the old spy seems to care little if he touches off another generation of brinksmanship between the Kremlin and the West. He should note that the brink is about a thousand miles closer to Russia in this generation.

Addendum: Interestingly, none of the major American newspapers have covered this in today's editions.

UPDATE: I missed this Los Angeles Times story on the threat:

The United States' multibillion-dollar defense system is designed to counter missiles that might someday be fired by what Washington calls rogue states — Iran and North Korea, for instance.

Russia has ridiculed the U.S. military logic and views the plan as a threat to its national security that would distort the post-Cold War balance of power in Europe. ...

In the early 1990s, post-Soviet Russia said its missiles were no longer targeted at NATO countries. Analysts said then that the announcement, which could not be independently verified, was a purely symbolic gesture ending the Cold War hostility.


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