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Spinning Missile Defense In Moscow

The test-firing of Iran's medium-range surface-to-surface Sejil-2 missile
The test-firing of Iran's medium-range surface-to-surface Sejil-2 missile
MOSCOW -- The message from Moscow was anything but unpredictable: It was the Kremlin's staunch opposition to American plans for a missile defense shield that forced the Obama Administration to drop them.

"We appreciate the responsible attitude," President Dmitry Medvedev said, "toward implementing our agreements." He’ll be standing several inches taller next to President Barack Obama when the two meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week. But the self-delusion in Moscow this weekend is as heavy as the self-satisfaction profuse.

Russia’s perception that scrapping the Bush Administration's missile shield is a sign of American weakness was one of the decision’s chief dangers. More important was its signal to the Czech Republic and Poland, where the shield’s components were set to be installed.

For Warsaw and Prague, going along with Washington's plan was less about its merits than indicating -- in the aftermath of September 11 -- that they were serious allies prepared to risk Moscow's wrath. The American radar installation and ten interceptor missiles would provide a physical manifestation of the two former Soviet Bloc’s new Atlantic ties at a time when Russia's invasion of Georgia has cast doubt on Washington's commitment to standing up for Western values and protecting its weakest allies.

The Czechs were also worried an announcement would affect upcoming elections, so the real debate in Washington over mothballing the missile shield plans was surely about timing and rhetoric. The insistence that the new system would be more advanced and effective is partly a cover for dropping the old one. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

The previous administration's missile defense program represented a symbolic resurrection of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program. It was also about telling the world Washington was going to do whatever it wanted. Missile defense made being with us or against an even greater ideological commitment that shook the NATO alliance and gave critics such as Russia more real grist for the mill.

The missile shield plans also called for spending tens of billions of dollars on technology that was never proven to work, a waste even less reasonable during a financial crisis.

If dropping the missile shield plans was all about common sense, one of the dividends is the hope that the decision really will help improve relations with Moscow. Being taken seriously is one of the Kremlin's main considerations, and it’s making as much as it can of telling Washington I told you so.

But the Kremlin’s arguments against American missile defense were never really about common sense or security. Moscow knew ten interceptor missiles in Poland never posed Russia a threat. Still, the Kremlin had vowed to aim nuclear missiles at Europe, although they walked that threat back in the wake of Obama's announcement. Russia’s leaders perceive instability around the world as a plus for Moscow, and they’re almost certain to latch on to something else.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the man who really rules Russia, indicated as much on Friday when he said dropping the missile shield plans "inspires hope," but groused, “I do anticipate that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others."

Defending the Bush Administration’s missile defense plans reminds me of a story I heard about a Russian doctor telling a cancer patient it was better to keep smoking because quitting would be a shock to his system. The decision to shelve Bush's plans is the latest proof that reason again reigns in Washington. It will be needed to deal with whatever Moscow throws at the West next.

-- Gregory Feifer

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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