Monday, January 29, 2007

Russia Goes Ballistic over Missiles

A recent US proposal to deploy a ballistic missile defence system to NATO-members Poland and the Czech Republic, has provoked stern reactions from Moscow and citizens of the concerned countries alike, Washington Post reports. The US motive is to create a missile defence shield for Eastern Europe, protecting the region from attacks of "rogue states" such as Iran or North Korea.

The US plans are to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar tracking station in the Czech Republic with the purpose to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It thus appears that this would add a strategic perspective to the sort of tactical theatre missile defence that is currently within technical reach. The Bush administration perceives the initiative primarily as part of its international war on terrorism rather than as an element of regional security.

In contrast to this, Moscow regards these plans as directed also against Russia. In response, the Russian MFA stated that "the creation of a U.S. European anti-missile base can only be regarded as a substantial reconfiguration of the American military presence in Europe." It is "a mistaken step with negative consequences for international security."

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) - commonly known as Star Wars - was one of the driving forces for the Soviet Union's defeat in the international arms race. Moscow then neither had the technique nor the resources to compete in developing a corresponding system. Star Wars thus presented a new phase in the arms race that would potentially render the soviet strategic advantage obsolete at a time when the USSR already was at loggerheads with maintaining the existing balance of power. Ever since, any proposal of this sort has hit a sore spot in Moscow.

To counter further NATO initiatives, then Russian Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, in 2001 proposed a common solution for a European Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, instead of a NATO national missile defence (NMD), aimed at protecting the alliance's European members. NATO reactions were lukewarm, portraying the Russian proposal as an attempt to "drive a wedge between the US and its European allies."

In this context, it is interesting to note that this time the US proposal is on a bilateral level, viz. between Washington and Warzaw and Prague respectively and not as part of the NATO collective defence system. The feelings in Bruxelles and among NATO-members are that such a US unilateralist approach would further threaten to undermine the Atlantic alliance, adding to Washington's tendency towards multilateralism à la carte.

Also, popular protests against the US plans have begun to mount in both Poland and the Czech Republic. Recent reminiscences of Soviet bases in these countries remain a mental obstacle for people to accept foreign military elements on their soil. Fears are also rising that hosting an anti-missile defence system would rather make the Poles and the Czechs targets for attack than act as a means of protection. Still, many observers on both sides of the Atlantic also regard this as yet another US test of allegiance for the European states with the greatest debt of gratitude for their independence and security.

What stands out as perhaps the most peculiar part of Washintgton's proposal is how the Republican administration has revived one of its pet projects of the 1980s. Since then, the Star Wars/SDI remains an extremely expensive and technically cumbersome project with little proof of relevance as to its efficiency in countering current threats. That Europe would form the primary target of a potential Iranian or North Korean ICBM-attack is extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future for two obvious reasons. First, Europe poses no threat to either Iran or North Korea. Targeting Europe would thus only serve as a threat by proxy towards the United States. Secondly, if Iran or North Korea would indeed develop nuclear arms and ICBMs to carry them, the primary target would be the US and its regional allies in the vicinity of Teheran and Pyongyang - not a distant and inoffensive Europe.

Why is it then that the US wants these weapons in Europe? Using the terrorist threat as a pretext for toppling the nuclear balance in Europe, as Moscow holds, simply seems too far-fetched. Instead, the simple truth may be sought in the minds of Bush & co. Reviving Star Wars is like kissing the sleeping beauty. The beauty of it is that you know what to expect as long as she lies there sound asleep. What you do not know is who she will become when awoken. Still, it simply is too tempting to resist.
Update: See also Peter Finn's update on the issue in the February 21 issue of the Washington Post.