The U.S. missile defense program, which contributed to the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations that helped generate the Russian-Georgian conflict, has benefited from that conflict and may cause a further downward spiral in the relationship between these two great powers.
Along with the recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and repeated rounds of an expanding NATO–a Cold War alliance the Russians perceive as hostile–”to Russia’s doorstep, the unilateral U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to pursue missile defense humiliated a weakened Russia. But with oil prices high, economic growth robust, and new bold leadership, a much stronger and grumpier Russian bear has emerged from hibernation, as predicted by U.S. doves as early as the mid-1990s. Now to take advantage of Russian “aggression” against Georgia (even though Georgia started the conflict rolling) and to demonstrate that the seemingly impotent United States has at least one retaliatory option, the Bush administration has provocatively reached an agreement with Poland to install 10 missile defense interceptors on its territory. This unnecessary deployment will merely dump gasoline on the fire and will probably cause Russia to take more anti-Western actions in response. Russia has already said that by agreeing to house the system, Poland has opened itself to targeting by Russia.
Although, U.S. officials insist that the system is meant to counter Iranian, not Russian, nuclear-tipped missiles, the Russians aren’t buying this argument and are also humiliated by such a defense being erected in a former Warsaw Pact ally only 115 miles from their territory. The administration claims that only 10 interceptors would not threaten a Russian nuclear deterrent force of thousands of warheads. The Russians fear, however, that the missile defense radar, which will be erected in the Czech Republic, could look into Russia and that the system is only a precursor to a much larger system that could threaten the Russian nuclear deterrent. The Russians are especially nervous about the survival of their nuclear force in the wake of its post-Cold War deterioration in reliability. Also, the Russians note that there is no current Iranian nuclear threat to Europe and that such a danger via missile is a long way off.
The American taxpayer might wonder why the U.S. government is paying the Europeans to let the U.S. defend them from future Iranian missiles. The price for Poland’s agreement to deploy U.S. missile defense interceptors includes the provision of Patriot missiles, U.S. modernization of Poland’s armed forces, and a strengthened U.S. commitment to defend Poland. The Czechs got similar goodies for their agreement to house the system’s radar.
Of course, the long-standing Republican obsession with missile defense–the Bush administration’s preoccupation prior to 9/11 and after is only the most recent installment–is more political than strategic. Missile defenses are very technologically challenging and expensive and can be countered relatively cheaply by building more nuclear-tipped missiles, putting more than one warhead on each missile, or using decoys to fool the system. Besides, the combination of U.S. detection systems that can pinpoint the origin of a nuclear missile launch and the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most powerful on earth, can deter any new nuclear-armed powers, such as Iran and North Korea, without the need to build an exorbitantly-priced missile defense system. Even the current U.S. missile defense system–a vastly scaled down version of the pie-in-the-sky “Star Wars” system proposed decades ago during the Reagan administration–was deployed in California and Alaska and is now likely to be deployed in Europe before it has been sufficiently proved technologically–a potential nightmare for taxpayers.
That’s where the politics comes in. Republicans, allegedly the party of small government, haven’t minded wasting buckets of money over the years to bring to fruition the vision of their “conservative” hero Ronald Reagan. The vision thing seems to be especially important after George W. Bush has wrecked the conservative brand name–perhaps for decades.
In sum, instead of trying to integrate Russia into the West after the Cold War, the United States alienated it. U.S. abrogation of the ABM Treaty played a part in bringing about this estrangement. Now in the wake of U.S.-Russian tensions over Georgia, the unnecessary U.S. deployment of missile defense in Europe risks a downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations into active hostility.