The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

War of the words

June 27, 2007

Did you know that there’s a new Cold War? Well, not really. It makes for good media headlines, but it’s largely exaggerated hype.

Nevertheless, tensions between the US and Russia have been on the rise over the last year. At the heart of the matter is Russia’s desire to be taken seriously as a player in the world political scene. The economy is booming and government coffers are overflowing. Russia sees itself as undergoing a resurgence and they want to be treated accordingly.

Instead, they’ve been receiving the standard Bush administration treatment, which seems to be applied equally to all our allies: here’s our plan for X…no, we don’t need your input.

Although the US and Russia have been wrangling over a number of issues, including the disposition of Kosovo and the progression of the Iranian nuclear program, the biggest bone of contention has been American plans to place anti-ballistic missile installations in Central Europe, in Poland and the Czech Republic (talk about ABM installations in Ukraine is, for now, just talk).

While the negotiations for deployment of these ABM components has been largely under the radar of the US press, it’s been a Big Deal in the Russian-language press since last fall. It’s a hot story…and it’s not merely nationalist drum-beating by the domestic Russian press–even the Russian-language BBC has been giving it a lot of coverage.

If you haven’t been following it, here’s the basics: the US wants to site radar installations and missile launchers in Poland and the Czech Republic, with the idea that this system would protect against missile attacks by rogue states (i.e., Iran and North Korea). Russia has reacted strongly against the proposed system, arguing that in placing BMD practically “at Russia’s borders” (this is the phrase used in the Russian press), the US can only have one purpose: to undermine the Russian nuclear deterrent. This has led to some absurdist rhetoric, where Russian officials have claimed that new missile systems under development will be fully able to penetrate the missile shield, while in the next breath they repeat the claim about undermining the deterrent. (If their missiles are truly unstoppable, then an ABM shield shouldn’t really concern them, should it?) As negotiations have proceeded with our NATO allies on BMD deployment, the pitch of the rhetoric has turned up: among other things, Russia has threatened to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and to retarget missiles toward Europe.

If you read closely, though, you will find that the key issue for the Russians is not the BMD system, but rather American unilateralism. The Russians want to be our partners, not our pushovers. From the NYT back in March:

NATO diplomats have also expressed frustration at Russia’s words of shock over proposals for basing missile interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic, and they produced lists of sessions in which officials from Moscow were briefed on the antimissile effort in NATO-Russia Council sessions and in bilateral talks.

Russian officials complain that those meetings were not two-way consultations about American plans but one-way notifications at which their concerns were not weighed.

Russia wants to be treated with the respect it feels it deserves as nuclear superpower–and it’s willing to throw its weight around to get it.

So here’s where we get to the juicy part: the recent G-8 summit in Germany.

After months of pumping up the rhetorical volume on the BMD controversy, Putin suddenly shifted gears. In a brilliant bit of political theater (or, perhaps, political judo), he offered a Russian radar installation in Azerbaijan as a site for a jointly managed ABM radar site.

The Bush administration could only splutter in response. The Gabala site is considerably closer to Iran and to North Korea. Of course, it’s not without drawbacks. For one thing, many Azeris are furious about the offer, claiming that the Russia’s lease on the facility does not permit them to hand it over to a third party.

On the other hand, they don’t have much to worry about. Putin placed a number of conditions on the deal, including a requirement for full Russian access to the joint facility (and presumably, to US technology). And some analysts have claimed that the site is both too close to Iran and too far from the proposed missile launcher sites to be effective. And at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting on June 15, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the Russian offer will not affect US plans to site facilities in Central Europe, though he didn’t rule out the possibility of using the Gabala radar as an additional site.

SOP, for the Bush admin: all take and no give. Of course, Putin’s offer grabbed all the headlines, while Gates’ quiet “thanks, but no thanks” has made no splash at all. But I don’t think anyone really thought it was a genuine offer in the first place, so the headlines are the real field of battle.

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