Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 17

Last year was a disaster in terms of Russia’s relations with the West. In December 2006 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up this “not easy” year by insisting that the “legacy of the Cold War has not been removed” and scolded the Western press for “bias” in covering the fatal poisoning of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Lavrov insisted that the main cause of renewed East-West tensions was that specific forces were “unpleasantly surprised” to see Russia’s “rapid revival” and were trying to “weaken a rival” — an explanation popular in Moscow today (www.mid.ru, December 20).

Speaking in Berlin last week, Igor Shuvalov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, called the murder of Litvinenko and the October murder in Moscow of Novaya gazeta investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya part of an “anti-Russian provocation,” organized by “strong forces” that had “united to attack the President.” Shuvalov added that it is stupid to link these murders to the Russian leadership (RIA-Novosti, January 18). But claims of innocence by Kremlin insiders sound increasingly false, as evidence seeming to implicate Moscow continues to pile up, particularly in the Litvinenko case.

Relations with the West are bad and may get worse, as other problems multiple. The proposed positioning of U.S. missile defense bases in former Warsaw Pact states Poland and the Czech Republic is being treated like a replay of some Cold War confrontation, akin to the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s or the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe in the 1980s.

Russian news agencies quote reports from Warsaw and Prague saying that the U.S. government has begun formal negotiations that may lead to agreements to begin construction of a U.S. missile-defense radar in the Czech Republic and a base with ten interceptor missiles in Poland. Three-star General Vladimir Popovkin, chief of the Russian Space Troops, told reporters, “The U.S. bases would be a clear threat to Russia.” Popovkin expressed concern that the new radar would be monitoring Russian strategic nuclear missiles deployed in Central Russia and the North Fleet (Barents Sea/Kola Peninsula). “It’s doubtful that Iranian or North Korean rockets would fly over Poland or the Czech Republic,” he commented. “If such a base would be deployed in Turkey, which is a NATO member and much closer to Iran, we would not be asking questions.” Popovkin then cryptically added: “We are carefully monitoring the situation and will react adequately” (Itar-Tass, January 22).

Other Russian officials have been also promising an “adequate response” to a possible U.S. missile defense deployment in Europe, but what exactly that means is not clear. Official news agency Itar-Tass quotes General Vitaly Dubrovin, a Russian military expert in the sphere of anti-missile and space defense, who believes that “the reply measures should include the possibility of the destruction of the U.S. MD system in Europe” (Itar-Tass, January 22).

Last November I had a working dinner in Warsaw with the Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski and some of his top generals. Sikorski, who is clearly an enthusiast of having a U.S. MD base, asked me to elaborate about what if any “adequate measures” Russia would take if the deployment actually went ahead. I explained that Russia’s military and political leaders do not like at all the idea of U.S. MD deployments on former Warsaw Pact territory, but no “adequate measures” have yet been agreed, no one in Moscow actually knows what to do, and, anyway, there is no rush for action, since our generals “adequately” understand there is no imminent threat. We know the U.S. at present does not have any reliable MD interceptors.

Of course, there will be no preventive strikes to destroy U.S. MD bases if and when the Americans indeed begin building, while the ambiguity of “adequate measures” will persist. Sikorski was clearly disappointed: Some substantive threats from the East always helps get a better defense budget.

Russia’s top brass have experienced the same problems. On the one hand, it is good to pump up a threat to get more budget allocations. At the same time, it is important to maintain an image of being strong and not afraid of anything. Last October, responding to U.S. plans to deploy missile defense in Europe, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced: “I would not want to create the impression that we are afraid. Still, it will require some modification in our force development policy, and Russia will need to take some precautionary measures” (RIA-Novosti, October 26, 2006). Ivanov later added: “We do not like U.S. MD in Europe, but this will not impede Russia’s security, since we have new Topol-M missiles that can penetrate any MD system” (Kommersant, January 22).

The Pentagon has the technology to build a modern MD radar in the Czech Republic, but tests of U.S. interceptor missiles still often end in failure. General Pavel Zolotarev, one of Russia’s top arms control experts, told Radio Mayak (January 22) that “a radar as such cannot pose a threat, while interceptor missiles that could be deployed in Europe do not yet exist.”

In reality, Moscow, Washington, Warsaw, and Prague are full of boasts, discussing “adequate measures” to meet nonexistent threats. Nor are there other immediate threats on the horizon: the Iranians and the North Koreans have only middle-range reliable missiles and do not yet have trustworthy nuclear warheads that could match any missiles they have or may have. If this is a replay of the Cold War, it resembles U.S. President Ronald Regan’s phony “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. Unfortunately, the Politkovskaya and Litvinenko murders are only too real.