TRUST BUT VERIFY….What’s up with those anti-missile bases President Bush wants to put in Poland and the Czech Republic? Supposedly they’re to protect Europe from Iranian attack, but I imagine that even most Americans don’t take that explanation seriously. On the other hand, the bases also don’t really represent much of a threat to Russia, so why is Vladimir Putin so upset about them? In the Prospect today, Robert Farley says it’s basically big-power politics combined with a fear of what the bases might become in the future:

[It’s] possible that the Russians are genuinely concerned about the ABM bases in Eastern Europe, not so much for what they’re capable of now than for what they might mean in twenty years. Given enough time and money, the United States can probably make a missile defense system work. In the 1980s, the Soviets were quite concerned about the Star Wars system despite its lack of technical success, and many of the people in the Kremlin then remain important now. The U.S. contention that the shield isn’t aimed at Russia is only halfway believable, given that the interceptors presumably won’t be programmed to avoid incoming Russian ballistic missiles.

The bases in Eastern Europe also represent a focus of U.S. military activity close to Russia’s borders; successful resistance to Russian intimidation on the part of Poland and the Czech Republic could further convince Russia’s closest neighbors to seek U.S. military protection and NATO membership. Since it’s extremely unlikely that Poland or the Czech Republic take the Iranian threat very seriously, their thinking on this issue probably mirrors the Russians’; that the ABM sites represent a U.S. commitment to protect Eastern Europe both militarily and politically from Russia.

I think this sounds right. Just to pick an example out of the air (no, really!), suppose that Russia decided to build some crude ABM bases in, say, Mexico and Nicaragua, supposedly to protect Latin America from Chinese attack. How would we react? Most likely, we’d come to the same conclusion Ronald Reagan did about Grenada’s construction of a 10,000 foot airstrip in 1983: “The Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada,” he said, “can only be seen as power projection into the region.”

So: we want to project power into Eastern Europe and Russia is pushing back. As for the Poles and the Czechs, they have a lot more reason to be afraid of the Russians than to be afraid of us. It’s hardly surprising that they’re on board with this.

UPDATE: The latest news is that Putin has told Bush he’ll accept the missile defense system if it’s moved near the Iranian border and built in partnership with Russia:

Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush Thursday that he would drop his objections to a U.S. missile defense system if Washington substantially altered current plans to base it entirely in Europe and instead involved Russia through a Soviet-era radar system in the central Asian nation of Azerbaijan.

….Putin said he spoke yesterday with the president of Azerbaijan, who agreed to host elements of a missile defense system there to protect all of Europe. If this is accepted, he said, he would have no need to carry out his threat to retarget Russian missiles or place offensive units along the country’s European borders.

Putin’s proposal will be “studied by U.S. experts,” according to the Washington Post. Bush called it an “interesting suggestion.” Sounds pretty unlikely to me. Stay tuned.

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