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Russia: Using Missile Defense as a Geopolitical Lever

Tuesday, June 12, 2007 - 14:45 Print Text Size

By George Friedman

Russian President Vladmir Putin threw a classic Cold War curveball during his chat with U.S. President George W. Bush at the G-8 summit. Having totally opposed the creation of a U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Putin suddenly shifted his position, saying he might go along with a BMD system under certain conditions. The system, he said, would be acceptable if the United States used a Russian radar system placed in Azerbaijan and based its interceptor missiles anywhere else, such as on ships or in Turkey or Iraq — anywhere but in Poland.

By rejecting the proposal, Washington would look hostile and uncompromising. Accepting it would mean basing the missiles near the Iranian border, possibly too close to intercept long-range missiles fired from there. Using Russian radar — which currently is insufficient for U.S. needs — would make the entire system dependent on Russian cooperation. And pulling the system from Poland would be a signal to Central Europe that military agreements with the United States are subject to negotiation with the Russians. That, of course, is exactly the signal Putin wants sent.

First, let's consider the BMD system itself. There are two criticisms of it, usually made by the same people. The first is that it won't work, and the second is that it is destabilizing. That the two statements are incompatible does not seem to faze most people. Therefore, it is necessary to begin by explaining the reason the BMD is such a passionate issue.

The foundation of stability during the Cold War was Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. MAD was based on the certainty that an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), once launched, could not be blocked. With enough ICBMs, land- and submarine-launched, both the United States and Soviet Union could assure the destruction of the other side in the event of a nuclear exchange. That deterred nuclear risk-taking and stabilized the situation.

The introduction of a missile defense system threatened to change this equation. If one side created such a system, its destruction would no longer be assured, and it might choose to launch a nuclear attack against another side. Even if the effectiveness of the BMD system were uncertain, its very uncertainty created an unknown factor. Neither side could be sure the system would work — one's own or the other's. In the hall of mirrors that constituted nuclear strategic thinking, the possibility that the other side might calculate probabilities different than you might force you to strike pre-emptively. Since the other side wouldn't know what you were thinking, it might strike pre-emptively. Thus, the existence of a BMD system that might not work was seen as increasing the chance of war.

The Soviets, however, had two very real fears when then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed Star Wars. The first was that the United States might just create an effective BMD system. The Soviets had been burned too many times by underestimating U.S. technological capabilities to be as dismissive as Western critics. The second problem was that the Soviets could not match the system financially or technologically. If it failed to work, fine. But if the United States pulled it off, the Soviet Union would be wide open to attack without the ability to field its own system.

Therefore, the Soviets went ballistic because they were uncertain about the system's effectiveness. They carried out diplomatic attacks against the system and encouraged its Western critics — and critics of the Reagan administration in general — to do all they could to block the system. As it was, Star Wars couldn't be made to work at the time, but if you were to have listened to the Soviets on the subject in the mid-1980s, you would have thought the United States was on the verge of annihilating the Soviets with Star Wars. By then, the Soviets' nerves were pretty well shot. They were generally on the ropes, and knew it.

Since those days, the concept of a BMD system has been seen as a technical impossibility that nevertheless is dangerous and destabilizing. There might have been an element of truth to that, but it is difficult to describe a system designed to block one or two missiles fired by a rogue state as destabilizing. MAD is not in effect, for example, with an Iranian or North Korean missile launch. There is no balance to destabilize. An argument could be made that the system doesn't work. You also could argue that the cheapest and most effective solution to an Iranian missile launch is a pre-emptive strike against the Iranian missile site. But it is hard to argue that the existence of a small defensive system of uncertain effectiveness and geared to look at a third party increases the probability of an American-Russian nuclear war.

But the complexities of nuclear deterrence against Third World countries with minor nuclear ambitions are not what Putin was thinking about when he made his offer to the United States. Rather, Putin was thinking about Poland, its role in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union (FSU), and its relationship to the United States. That's what really is worrying Putin, and the BMD issue is merely a lever to deal with the larger geopolitical issues. In other words, this isn't about missile defense, but about a U.S. military presence — no matter how small — in Poland.

Ever since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Russians have been shifting their foreign policy to reassert their sphere of influence in the FSU. In their view, the Andropov experiment of trading geopolitical influence for economic benefits with the West has failed. The benefits failed to solve their problems when they materialized, and the geopolitical concessions have created massive insecurity for the Russian Federation. Therefore, reclaiming Moscow's sphere of influence is the primary issue, starting with Ukraine.

The Russians blamed the Americans for Ukraine, but they also have blamed Poland. Of all of the former European satellites, Poland has been the most openly anti-Russian and the most active in supporting forces in the FSU that also are resisting Russian resurgence. This was shown recently in the Baltic states, particularly Estonia, where Russians have been angered over what is portrayed as increasingly repressive moves toward the local Russian population. The relocation of a monument to the Red Army for liberating Estonia from Germany led to riots by ethnic Russians. Moscow deliberately intensified the crisis, warning the Estonians not to take actions against Russians.

The Russians have a particular problem with the Baltic countries, in that they have been admitted to NATO. The Russians believed they had an understanding with NATO and the United States, dating back to the fall of the Soviet Union, that NATO would not be extended into Central Europe — and certainly never into the FSU. Obviously, though, many Central European countries have joined NATO. The induction of the Baltic countries, which brought NATO within 60 miles of St. Petersburg, angered the Russians but was grudgingly seen as the price of the Andropov doctrine. However, it was post-Orange Revolution talk of including Ukraine in NATO that drove the Russians to reverse policy.

The Poles, given their long history, are not a trustful or secure people. They view the Russians as merely recovering from a setback, not permanently vanquished. They also have no love or trust for the Germans. Historically trapped on the hard-to-defend northern European plain, equally afraid of both Russians and Germans, the Poles have always looked to an outside power as a protector. Even the experience of French and British guarantees in World War II has not soured them on this strategy, since it is the only one they've got. And that means the Poles now are relying on American guarantees.

But the Poles also badly need a buffer between them and the Russians. They want independent Baltic states in NATO. They want Ukraine in NATO. If there was any way to swing it, they would want Belarus in NATO. They want the Russians kept as far from them as possible. So long as they feel they have U.S. guarantees, they will do everything they can to create blocks to a return of Russia to the frontiers of the FSU.

The Russian view is that the Poles are being encouraged and emboldened by the United States. The missile defense system in Poland is not important in and of itself. It certainly doesn't affect Russia's ability to launch a nuclear strike. But as a symbol of a Polish-U.S. alliance that transcends NATO, it is absolutely vital. The Poles wanted the missiles in their country to symbolize the link, and the Americans wanted them there for the same reason. As long as that link exists, the Poles feel secure, and as long as the Poles feel secure, they will be a thorn in the side of the Russians. The Russian goal of exerting a sphere of influence in the FSU has a broader component. Russia does not expect to regain influence in most of Central Europe — Serbia possibly excepted. It does want the Central Europeans to be sufficiently wary of the Russians as to exercise caution. Most of the rest of Central Europe tries hard not to get in Russia's way. The Russians want to solidify this posture and extend it to Poland while they redefine the status of the Baltics.

If the Russians can get the Americans to withdraw the missiles from Poland, placing them in Azerbaijan, on ships at sea or in downtown Moscow, the Russians will have achieved their goal. The Russians have a lingering distaste for the BMD. But the real issue is to force a U.S. retreat from Poland. That would shake Polish — and broader European — confidence in the U.S. commitment, sober the rest of an already cautious Central Europe and certainly cause the Balts to rethink their posture toward Russia.

If the United States refused to shift the system, this would give the Russians a lever with the Germans. Moscow could then go to the Germans (who still are smarting over a couple of brief cut-offs of natural gas from Russia) and argue that the Americans are triggering another Cold War by their inflexible commitment to basing in Poland when Russia has offered a set of workable alternatives. Whatever German Chancellor Angela Merkel's view of geopolitics, the German public does not want a replay of the Cold War — and wants Poland to be quiet.

There is also, as in all good Cold War games, a domestic political component. The United States has enjoyed meddling in Russian politics for the past 15 years or so. This gives Putin a chance at payback. At a time when the Bush administration is both politically weak and quite distracted, painting the administration as being inflexible and aggressive, courting another ill-conceived confrontation over a weapon that doesn't work anyway, is a low-risk, high-gain proposition. The New York Times already bit on the bait with an editorial praising Russian flexibility.

The administration's geopolitical problem is obvious. It has too many irons in the fire and a couple of them — Iraq and Afghanistan — are white hot. The Russians are deliberately raising the stakes over the Polish system because they see the Bush administration's last two years as a golden opportunity to redefine their sphere of influence. If the United States resists Russia's suggestions, Russia can make inroads in Germany and the rest of Western Europe while causing more domestic political pressure on an administration that already is in the red zone when it comes to political weakness. If Washington compromises, the Russians can use that in Central Europe as evidence of the United States' lack of commitment and of a need for the Central Europeans to rethink their position. It particularly puts the Baltic states in a difficult position. Poland alone (or with the tiny Baltic states) certainly is not a sufficient counterweight to Russia.

Putin's move, therefore, was brilliantly timed and conceived. He took an issue that is controversial in its own right and used it as a geopolitical lever, striking hard at a relationship that is most troubling to Moscow. The Washington-Warsaw relationship represents a serious regional challenge to Russian ambitions. If the Russians can get an American retreat on the anti-missile system in Poland, they can begin the process of unraveling the U.S. position in Central Europe. Since the Western Europeans wouldn't mind in the least, there are possibilities here.

But the possibilities are not the same ones that existed during the Cold War, or even as recently as three years ago. Any region with three dozen states — read: Europe — is a dynamic place where governments regularly come and go. By the end of June, the three major European leaders who demonstrated the greatest affinity for Russia during their terms — German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair — will all be gone. Their replacements, and the replacements of similar governments throughout Europe, are largely Russo-skeptic. But they also are not instinctual European federalists.

This both destroys and creates opportunities for Moscow. The Kremlin is now facing a Europe that is actually more hostile to it than a similar pan-European alignment of the 1980s. Simultaneously, the unraveling of the European project means that, though the overall region is certainly more suspicious, Russia's ability to peel off individual states from the whole, either with sweet talk or intimidation, could actually prove easier.

And nowhere will it be easier than Serbia. The Russians have made it clear that they do not favor an independent Kosovo. Friendly with Serbia, and very unhappy with the way the Kosovo war was handled by the United States, the Russians could well choose to create a second confrontation over the future of Kosovo, testing both the Americans and Western Europeans at the same time. The Russians now have very little to lose and quite a bit to gain from confrontation.

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