The Secretary General of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Sheffer, recently has been quite outspoken regarding the need for a missile shield in Europe. In de Hoop Sheffer's mind the only real problem is the cost of the weapons, site construction, and the division of that cost among the participating European states.
What is striking is the secretary general's disregard of Russia's strident objections to the effort of the United States to arrange for missile interceptor sites and integrated radar to be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively. Apparently NATO has judged the bellicose Russian reaction to the potential of such basing to be empty political posturing.
The argument that is being made at NATO headquarters in Brussels is that Iran's Shahab-6, its true intercontinental missile, will be operational in eight years. This intelligence is combined with a pessimistic assessment regarding prevention of the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Apparently the evaluation of this information has led NATO planners to conclude that they must opt to protect all of Europe.
The surprising thing is that there has been no immediate outcry from the usual hip-shooting Russian Defense Ministry. Perhaps First Dep. Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who now is effectively defense czar, is currently too involved with his own presidential election efforts to give much credence to what a NATO secretary general says. On the other hand, the Russian military may be loath to escalate the rhetoric to a European scale when threats against the already burdened Americans are a much more welcome international matter.
One of the other things at play here is that Moscow must be already in the process of developing its own advanced missile defense system. Russia's problem is not a simple one in that it must protect itself from Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as the United States -- if the traditional Russian paranoia is still operative.
Unless the Russians make the calculated judgment that their thousands of nuclear-armed missiles are enough of a deterrent in themselves to make unnecessary an anti-intercontinental ballistic missile defense system, one can expect rather soon the word to be "leaked" that Moscow is about to test its own advanced ABM system.
All of which tends to expose the fact that the vociferous Russian objection to American interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic is more a matter of leftover pique from Moscow's loss of dominance over eastern Europe. Putin doesn't really give a strategic damn over a bare screen of ten interceptors in Poland clearly targeted against Iran. He just doesn't want the Americans taking up a position -- even if it's defensive -- in the USSR's old satellite states.
In domestic political terms Putin believes Russia must maintain the image of an internationally powerful, and thus influential, strategic capability. Putin and his acolytes, Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, as well as the rising star, Sergei Mironov, have one principal objective in mind: Move Russia into a position of exercising the clout that the old Soviet Union once had, but without the inherent danger and expense.
Part of this is done with mirrors, and part with judicious defense investment. But much of it is accomplished by a vigorous economy and an even more vigorous and consistent diplomatic offensive whenever possible. International strategic policy is a combination of political, diplomatic and military strength.
Ironically, the assassination of anti-government journalists and activist dissidents, such as Litvinenko in London, is a clear mark of weakness rather than the strength for which the perpetrators had hoped. President Putin and the rest of the Kremlin leadership appear to be a regime incapable at best of controlling their own supporters, or, at worst, their own most base instincts.
Aside from their many missiles and nuclear weapons, the Russian military is nowhere near the class of the American military services. Its economy is flying high at the moment on the production and price of its exportable oil. The vulnerability in that sector is the limited term of its proven reserves (60 billion barrels) as calculated by British Petroleum. Some estimates indicate commercially exploitable reserves will be substantially diminished in less than 10 years.
In politics, intelligence, and diplomacy, however, Moscow is still a first rank contender, if not a super power. It would be wise for Washington to remain attuned to this -- now and after 2008, no matter who is the American president.
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