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Russia’s Cold War anger over U.S. shield: misjudged?
Russia’s angry response to an accord between Washington and Prague on building part of a U.S. missile defence shield in the Czech Republic is reminiscent of the rhetoric of the Cold War. Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says Moscow still wants talks on the missile shield, his Foreign Ministry has threatened a “military-technical” response if the shield is deployed.
That phrase could have come straight out of the Soviet lexicon and seems more at home in the second half of the last century than now. Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer called it psychological pressure to try to encourage opposition to the missile system among Europeans, and described it as “the same sort that was used in the 1980s by the Soviet Union when the United States deployed cruise missiles in Europe.”
We are, of course, a long way from the tensions of the Cold War. But the dispute is reminiscent of the war of words between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1980s over another missile defence system — the Strategic Defence Initiative proposed by Ronald Reagan. His dream of a partly space-based missile system, otherwise known as Star Wars after George Lucas’ 1977 film, never became a reality but the row over it plagued Soviet-U.S. relations for years.
The disagreement over the missile defence system that George W. Bush now wants to be partly based in Europe risks having a similar impact on U.S.-Russian relations. Perhaps fittingly, it has been referred to as Son of Star Wars.
I was a correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s when the dispute over Star Wars was at its height. The disagreements were clear. Reagan wanted to deploy a multi-billion-dollar land- and space-based shield to shoot down incoming missiles. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said the programme would disrupt the nuclear balance and fuel an arms race in space, and expressed hope that Europe would not become “a testing-ground for the Pentagon’s doctrines of a limited nuclear war”.
The disagreement led to the collapse of a 1986 superpower summit in Iceland.
When I was back in Moscow in the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin were at loggerheads over U.S. plans for a Star Wars-style missile defence umbrella, even though Clinton had pulled the plug on Star Wars in 1993. Moscow said plans to develop the new missile defence system would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement Moscow saw as a cornerstone of global security.
Similar issues hung over Vladimir Putin’s presidency and now threaten to strike a severe blow to hopes of an improvement in U.S.-Russian ties at the very start of Medvedev’s presidency.
Washington says it needs a missile defence system based partly in Europe to provide protection against any attack on European or U.S. targets by rogue states such as Iran, which tested new long- and medium-range missiles on Wednesday. Russia says the missiles could threaten its own defences and might become a bigger threat over time it if the system expanded.
In the 1980s, Moscow was worried about a project that would have based missiles outside the former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. It is now concerned about a system that would be even closer to home. A radar tracker is to be placed on Czech soil and, if a deal is reached with Warsaw, 10 interceptor missiles could be installed in Poland. Both Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia were members of the Warsaw Pact.
If Poland does not reach an agreement with the United States, Lithuania has been suggested an alternative site for the interceptors. That would be an even less welcome prospect for Moscow because the Baltic state was part of the Soviet Union. Little surprise, then, that Medvedev took a firm line on the issue in comments he made at the group of Eight summit in Japan.
But Moscow could risk shooting itself in the foot by reverting to rhetoric that harks back to the Cold War. Michal Kaminski, an aide to Polish President Lech Kaczynski said on Wednesday Russia’s reaction was unacceptable. He said it showed Poland should “strengthen our alliance with the United States because beyond our eastern border there are politicians who use a language we thought had vanished many years ago, the language of might and imperial ambitions.”