The main theme of President Dmitry Medvedev’s election campaign was a pledge of “continuity” of the politics of his predecessor Vladimir Putin, who is now the prime minister. The promise of continuity is being kept. Observers have been seeking out indications of change in the best traditions of Cold War Sovietology, trying to infer grand political meaning from casual speeches or personnel changes in the Kremlin and the government. Medvedev has been perceived as a “liberal” without Putin’s KGB background, and indications of a possible liberal revival are being sought in everything he does or says. But at present, there is no genuine substance to back any liberal dream.
During his first foreign tour as president, Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Beijing and issued a joint communiqué that expressed clear-cut opposition to U.S. plans for a worldwide missile defense system (MD) and planned deployments in Europe. They said: “Creating a global missile-defense system, including deployment of such a system in some regions of the world, would not help maintain strategic balance and stability and would hamper international efforts in arms control and nuclear nonproliferation” (www.kremlin.ru, May 23).
The communiqué was wordy and somewhat ambiguous, as Medvedev’s statements mostly tend to be. In an apparent effort to state the official Russian position clearly, the Beijing communiqué was followed by a press briefing in Moscow by Defense Ministry General Yevgeny Buzhinsky, who repeated the main points of Moscow’s displeasure about U.S. MD plans.
Russia is still fully opposed to the Bush administration’s plan to post elements of an antimissile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. According to Buzhinsky, the radar in the Czech Republic could peer deep into Russia’s airspace, while the interceptors in Poland could be used against Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. Buzhinsky made an additional allegation that has often been made off record but seldom officially–that the U.S. missiles deployed in Poland could be used not as “hit-to-kill” ICBM interceptors per se, but could be secretly transformed into nuclear-tipped intermediate-range attack missiles aimed directly at Moscow.
In a surprise treacherous attack, U.S. nuclear missiles, deployed in Poland under the guise of MD interceptors to defer a possible Iranian ballistic attack on Europe, “could reach the center of European Russia in a couple of minutes.” Buzhinsky implied that the MD deployment in Poland was intended to create the chance to launch a surprise so-called “decapitating attack” that could almost instantly kill the Russian political and military leadership before they would have time to order a counterstrike against the U.S. aggressors. Buzhinsky added, “If the U.S. deploys the third positioning unit in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia will withdraw its proposals of joint use of early warning radar stations at Armavir in southern Russia and Gabala in Azerbaijan.” The offer was an alternative to planned U.S. MD deployments, not an “addition to them” (RIA-Novosti & Interfax, May 27).
The U.S. has offered transparency arrangements to allay Russia’s concerns over MD deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic. “We were prepared not to [put the sites into operation] until we had had flight testing from Iran that showed a capability to threaten Europe,” stated U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and earlier Moscow seemed to have accepted these arrangements in principal (see EDM, March 19 and April 10). Now Buzhinsky announced that the arrangements are insufficient and “maybe reversed if an Iranian threat emerges.” At the same briefing, Buzhinsky announced that Iran did not have ballistic missiles with a range of 5000 km, so the Iranian missile threat is imaginary. Russia is demanding that its military personnel must be permanently present at U.S. MD installations, but the Poles and Czechs have rejected this as unacceptable. Buzhinsky repeated that Russia was currently preparing countermeasures to reduce the military threat from U.S. MD deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic but refused to specify the precise nature of these “countermeasures.”
It seems that tentative agreement on MD deployment has failed after the accession of Medvedev. This does not support Medvedev as a “liberal,” but at the same time it does not imply that he is ready to preside over a new prolonged period of East-West tension. As negotiations between Washington and Warsaw continue on MD deployment, Moscow may be putting on some additional pressure to influence, if possible, the outcome of the talks in its favor. Russia’s top military leaders anyway do not want a compromise on MD deployment and could be using the Medvedev accession to bring their views to bear on the Kremlin.
Putin was a strong president that the generals could only obey. Medvedev is at present politically weak and not in a position to impose his will. Russian defense and foreign policy has been handed over to a leader who does not have the power to change guidelines previously agreed upon. This worst of all possible “continuity” will prevent any decisive decisions on any issue until the leadership confusion in Moscow is somehow settled.