Russia and the United States are currently involved in a fierce tussle over the US plan to deploy a missile shield - "theater missile defense" (TMD) systems - in Eastern Europe. There has been talk of the return to a Cold War mentality.
Early this year the US proposed to Poland and the Czech Republic the resumption of negotiations over establishing TMD bases in their countries. Soon afterwards the Bush administration announced its plan to deploy 10 land-based long-range missile defense batteries in Poland and one medium-range radar facility in the Czech Republic by 2010.
Russia's immediate response was fury, accusing the United States of threatening Russian security. The dispute has been heating up with Russia resorting to retaliatory measures, causing bilateral ties to approach the freezing point.
On the US side, from President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates down to all departments concerned, the Washington spin mechanism scrambled into damage control with multiple versions of the same explanation, which basically says:
First, the United States plan to deploy TMD systems in Eastern Europe is primarily intended to intercept possible missile attacks from Iran, and the United States has to be prepared though Iran is not currently capable of such attacks. The United States also believes Iranian missiles will pose a real threat to Europe around the year 2015 and it cannot slow down the process of TMD deployment in Eastern Europe.
Second, the decision to allow US TMD systems is Poland's and the Czech Republic's own. In fact, news reports have said more than half the public in these countries opposes the TMD deployment plan and Polish Defense Minister Aleksander Szczyglo promised his country would reject the deal if the US terms are found unacceptable.
The United States hopes to cooperate with the Czech Republic, Poland and Britain in a bid to link the TMD systems in the two East European nations with those of NATO to protect the entire Western military alliance.
Third, the plan is not aimed at Russia but will actually help protect Russia's western region. The number of TMD missiles the United States plans to deploy in Eastern Europe is too small to counter Russia's huge arsenal. In terms of speed and number, the TMD systems can only track a tiny portion of the incoming Russian missiles even if radar does detect them. Official missile test results published by Moscow showed US missile defense can't stop a Russian attack, which also indicates the US missile defense systems would not be aimed at Russia.
Fourth, Russia can benefit from the US TMD systems as the two sides can cooperate in missile technology, share early-warning data, hook up their own TMD systems and expand joint operations in missile defense. The United States is not trying to sneak in the TMD systems and it would welcome Russia's involvement.
Fifth, with or without Russia's cooperation, the United States will not abandon the plan. It is Russia's accusations that will "revive the Cold War", and the security of the United States is inseparable from that of Europe. Threatening Europe will help no one.
In short, the United States does not see Russia as an enemy and hopes Russia will not see America as an enemy. The Soviet era is over and the two sides should not trade verbal attacks as they did in the past. The two sides can work together against common threats.
On the Russian side, from President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to other government officials and the media, the responses include:
First, the United States used Cold-War tactics to persuade European countries to allow deployment of US missile defense systems in their territories. Geographically, there is no doubt the move is aimed at Russia and a real threat to Russia's nuclear capabilities.
Second, the United States claim that the move is aimed at Iran and North Korea is groundless. It does not reflect military reality because the purported missiles from Iran and North Korea will be "most certainly pointed in other directions".
The deployment of US radar and TMD missiles could trigger a new Cold War while offering no defense against possible or imagined threats from Middle Eastern or East Asian countries. It has already created new cracks in Europe and will trigger a fresh round of arms races there. If given free rein, the United States will turn Europe into a "powder keg" and the likelihood of a nuclear duel could increase.
Third, the United States plan to deploy TMD systems in Eastern Europe is tantamount to nullifying the international community's political efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation over such issues as the Iranian nuclear crisis. The United States has in effect rejected the international community's political and diplomatic efforts to resolve international disputes.
Fourth, the Bush administration is abusing its military might in a bid to dominate the world. Not just the Russians but all Europeans will become hostages of the US missile defense system. As it threatens Russia's security, the nation will take the system as a target for elimination.
Fifth, Russia does not consider the US TMD deployment plan a defensive measure, because it will allow the United States to launch preemptive strikes and destroy the global strategic balance. The Russian strategic missile forces will take any action necessary to render it ineffective.
Russia also took a number of resolute measures in response, including suspending the implementation of the European Conventional Armed Forces Treaty; successfully test firing one of its newest RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles "capable of destroying any existing or future missile defense system"; and putting Washington in a fix by suggesting that the United States redeploy its TMD systems intended for Poland and the Czech Republic to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan or Turkey or even Iraq, closer to the supposed origin of the threats.
The United States plan to deploy its TMD systems in Eastern Europe is generally considered to be aimed at Russia.
The eastward expansion by NATO, the "color revolutions" in former Soviet republics and deployment of missile defense systems could all prevent Russia from getting stronger, squeezing its strategic space.
During the early stage of NATO's eastward expansion, Russia was weak and could only hunker down and brood. When the "color revolutions" took place, Russia was on the rebound and able to straighten up in response to the challenges. Now, faced with planned US deployment of TMD systems, Russia is fighting back.
To the Russian government, the US missile defense systems in Eastern Europe are part of the strategic configuration that includes similar systems in Alaska and East Asia to contain Russia from both the east and west. Russia is apparently weighing the implications of this TMD issue from a global perspective.
The United States did not inform Russia of its plan to deploy missile defense systems in Eastern Europe beforehand, which Russia perceived as violating the agreement on bilateral ties. Moscow therefore insists that any future dialogue on this issue must adhere to three principles: issues to be resolved must be real; cooperation must be on an equal footing; and any cooperation must also serve Russia's interests and security.
The construction of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe could assume any of the following three formats: going ahead unilaterally as the United States has planned with deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic; building a Europe-wide missile defense network within the framework of NATO as the European Union wants; and NATO cooperation with Russia to build a system which Russia envisions. The latter two share some mutual points.
Russian-US relations have cooled down recently but not to the point of a new Cold War. The two sides are in serious dispute over the missile defense issue but it is only a matter of time before they find a way to reach a compromise.
It won't be easy for them to maintain their strategic partnership, but there is always room for cooperation in areas such as stopping nuclear proliferation, fighting terrorism and weeding out drug trafficking and money laundering. The planned US visit by Putin should be an opportunity for the two sides to make amends.
(China Daily June 20, 2007)