Let’s recap the past few months of U.S./Russian relations:
President Bush has announced his intention to place ten interceptor missile batteries in the Czech Republic and Poland. The batteries are part of our military’s multi-billion dollar anti-ballistic missile system, which, to put it euphemistically, does not work.
These missiles are being deployed to counter the threat of Iran firing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles into Western Europe or the United States. As of right now, Iran has no nuclear weapons, nor have they developed a ballistic missile that can reach Europe, much less all the way across the Atlantic to the United States.
Vladimir Putin, the president of democratic Russia (to put it euphemistically), is chaffing at the idea of the American missile batteries being located in two countries that, once upon a time, were firmly ensconced as Soviet satellites.
Russia claims that the American missile batteries are not meant to counter any threat from Iran, or other rogue states, but are rather aimed at making the substantial Russian nuclear arsenal obsolete. Russia has approximately 20,000 nuclear weapons. If you have a hard time seeing how ten missile batteries, from a system that does not work, can threaten an arsenal capable of vaporizing every living thing on earth many times over, you are not alone.
This issue has been a minor festering sore in U.S./Russian relations for some time now, but Putin vastly upped the rhetoric when he intoned that deploying the anti-missile system in Europe would force Russia to once again target the cities of Western Europe.
So this is the situation the United States and Russia were in as President Bush and President Putin made their way to the G-8 summit last week. The United States has developed an anti-ballistic missile system that does not work, and has decided to deploy it in an area to counter a threat from Iran that does not yet exist. Russia is up in arms about a non-functioning anti-ballistic missile system deployed in their former stomping grounds that threatens to in no way make their nuclear arsenal obsolete. They have also threatened to point said arsenal at targets in the west that are already targets.
Ain’t politics grand?
This love triangle of nuclear brinksmanship is political theater as high art. The roles of Iran and the United States merely support the display, the aria, if you will, of Russian indignation. The Russian bear has been stirring from its imposed hibernation for some time now. The growl from Moscow announces its return to great power status. Or does it? This is hardly the beginning of a new Cold War.
Putin’s sudden indignation is for domestic consumption. While it would be folly to ignore Russian concerns, remember that Putin is an autocrat who is in the peculiar position of being faced with term limits. Abiding by Russia’s constitution, he has only a short time left in office. All the fire and brimstone is designed to shore up already overwhelming support at home. But while Putin is enormously popular at home, he does not have the support yet to force the Russian Parliament to alter the constitution, allowing him to run for another reelection. Convincing the Russian people that they would be in dire straits without his leadership is a good start.
Russia is quickly losing all the gains towards democracy that it made after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin was always a suspect president, given his background in the KGB. The economic, social, and political crackdowns that have grown increasingly wicked over the past few years in Russia are evidence that Putin is fast becoming a brutal dictator. His outrage at the tawdry missile defenses of the United States have nothing to do with any threat we may pose. Our own nuclear arsenal sees to that, and Putin knows it. This is all about power. Putin is consolidating at home, and readying his country to give hegemony another shot. Ten years ago, this was laughable. Eventually, however, Russia’s aggressive overtures, its attempts to cudgel its neighbors and the rest of the foreign community, will have to be dealt with. It is up to Russia, and Putin, to determine just how friendly these dealings will be.