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Going Ballistic

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
03.30.2007 | POLITICS

The growing flap over missile defense bases in Eastern Europe has me thinking back to 1998, to the raucous American debate over NATO expansion. Remember that? Me neither. Just about everyone who mattered wanted to expand the NATO umbrella over the Poles, the Czechs, and the Huns. Most everyone else was at least resigned to enlarging NATO's "zone of peace and security."

Only a few people bothered speaking out against expansion, and the list wasn't that impressive. It included right-wing hag Phyllis Schlafly, who thought NATO constituted "European welfare", and mega-hack Thomas Friedman, who argued it was stupid to needlessly piss off or frighten Russia, a weakened but major nuclear power with a dilapidated early warning system. Surprisingly, the Times editorial board agreed with their columnist. It was a lonely position.

The debate, such as it was, ended in a steamroll, with Friedman et. al. entombed face up in wet cement. Schlafley and the Times proved no match for Lockheed Martin, Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel. Expansion sailed through, as it did again in 2002, and Russian concerns were waved off by champagne drinking western officials. "Re-lax," Moscow was told. "Sure the Poles and Latvians hate your guts, but we're your bankers! Stop worrying. Take in a ballet. Go eat some borscht."

Nine years later, the same basic dialogue is still on loop. Just like in '98, Russian generals are warning Washington against overstepping along their western border. Back when Russia was down and everybody knew it, these warnings contained an undertone of pleading. Not anymore. The U.S. plan for missile defenses in Eastern Europe could very well prove a dangerous tipping point in relations with a resurgent Russia. Everyone keeps saying they don't want a definitive split or another arms race, but that's exactly where we're heading.

It's been happening for years, in excruciating slow-motion. Missile defense isn't just an isolated project that can be forced down Moscow's throat with a few "briefings" and an emergency meeting of the (practically defunct) NATO-Russian Council. It's the latest move in all-too coherent strategy.

There are two reasons the missile defense provocation could push U.S./NATO-Russian relations to the breaking point. First is the continuum issue; it's just one broken promise too many. In 1991 the west promised Gorbachev that NATO would not encroach east if the Warsaw Pact disappeared. After promising to remain a "defensive" alliance dedicated to stabilization in Europe, it bombed Serbia. In another 1998 promise, NATO said it would not allow advanced new weapons systems in new member countries. Now comes the missile defense plans. And people say we can't trust North Korea?

Second, the missile-defense system proposed for Poland and the Czech Rep (and perhaps, says the Pentagon, Ukraine and Georgia) is a work in progress. U.S. officials can downplay the size of the first seedling installations, but it's the future that matters. While the system we're hearing about calls for just 10 conventional missiles, the technology is fetal, with early sonar scans suggest the baby has Down Syndrome. Analysts on both sides have admitted the system as currently imagined may later be abandoned or modified to include nuclear anti-missile missiles. The Czech and Polish bases are also to be integrated into America's nascent global missile defense architecture, including sea and space-based elements. A comprehensive Death Star missile defense network is the key to Washington's stated goal of "full-spectrum dominance."

The western pooh-pooh chorus is well practiced at portraying Russian statements of concern as the lashing out of a dim-witted, paranoid, and possibly expansionist power. But this chorus sings primarily for western domestic consumption; Russians stopped believing their assurances years ago. Lead baritone is NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who recently said, "You don't need to be a technological wizard or an Einstein to understand that this cannot be possibly directed against the Russians and cannot diminish their first-strike capability."

That's odd, because an article last year in Foreign Affairs by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press explained clearly and unabashedly why the missile defense system is not only obviously geared toward Russia (and China), but furthermore that the system will finally allow the U.S. to launch a "successful" first nuclear strike against Russia without worrying about retaliation, giving the U.S. total world nuclear supremacy. (Let's ignore for the moment the fact that such an attack would trigger global nuclear winter.) Aside from tempting the U.S. to commit the unthinkable, nuclear primacy has obvious benefits: it is the ultimate political power-tool, dramatically increasing NATO/U.S. leverage in crisis-bargaining.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov recently tried to explain the reality of the situation to a Bloomberg reporter. "Whether [military programs] are done with good intentions or bad, it doesn't matter, it increases the hypothetical threat," he said. "We are reacting to that in terms of taking necessary military measures.''

Col-Gen Boris Cheltsov, chief of staff of the air force, has described U.S. missile defense plans as "a serious threat to the military and, consequently, national security of Russia, and this can disrupt the whole system of strategic stability in the world." Cheltsov also points to U.S. programs developing space weapons and new high-tech high-altitude aircraft as related causes for concern. These Pentagon programs form part of the backdrop to Russia and China's new crotch-bulging defense budgets (combined still a fraction the size of America's.)

NATO expansion may have started the recent downtrend in relations being accelerated by missile defense, but there's a long history of mistrust between the U.S. and Russia. It goes all the way back to the first major beef between the two countries. In 1917, shortly after the Bolsheviks took power, Woodrow Wilson insisted that America had "no intention to interfere in the internal affairs of Russia" and would "guarantee" that her troops would "not impair the political or territorial sovereignty of Russia." Meanwhile more than 200,000 foreign troops, including 15,000 Americans, invaded Russia between 1918-1920.

Compare Wilson's words to those of U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who last month repeated the administration mantra: "[T]he [missile defense] system is not directed at Russia, it is a system of limited capability, and it poses no threat to the Russian strategic deterrent." Just repeat after us: You have nothing to fear. We come in peace. Go eat some borscht.

To be fair, Hadley's right. At the moment the system is completely dysfunctional and poses no threat to anyone. But in 10, 20, 30 years? And what if some future administration as deranged as the current one bases its foreign policy on the assumption that it does work? These are the questions that matter. Answer them honestly and you see the world's (not just Russia's) point: missile defense is a bad idea, and missile defense in Eastern Europe is pouring stupid on stupid. To their credit, even most Poles and Czechs agree.

Russia's response to this latest provocation has been predictable. If the other guy with a gun is putting on a bullet proof vest, you're going to take your own gun off safety and point it at his face -- or his nuts. As it did after NATO expanded and started raining bombs on Serbia, Russia's general staff is once again set to revise its military doctrine, with more emphasis on -- one guess -- nuclear weapons. But not just any nukes. New nukes. Bigger nukes. Faster nukes. Closer nukes.

And retro nukes. Russia is talking about reintroducing short and medium range tactical nuclear missiles into its strategic mix if the U.S. proceeds with its missile defense plans. Along with being a brilliant wedge thrust between the U.S. and its main NATO allies, it's the most fashion-backward move in major power military style since the U.S.A.F. used napalm on Saddam's troops in March '03.

Short-range tactical nukes. You may remember these European Continent-frying weapons from the early-80s, when the U.S. placed Pershings in West Germany, triggering a mass peace movement in Europe. Moscow already had its own short and medium range missiles in place, the SS-20. Both were scrapped with the 1987 signing of the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), a major landmark in the history of arms control.

Then the cold war became black-and-white footage and we forgot all about nuclear weapons, unless they had North Korean, Iraqi, or Iranian flags painted on them.

Well, someone cue the Devo, because it's looking like New Wave night at cafe Europa. Chief of the General Staff Yuriy Baluyevskiy has said Russia will unilaterally withdraw from INF if the U.S. proceeds with its missile defense plans in Russia's backyard. Doing his Bush impersonation, top presidential candidate and first vice premier Sergei Ivanov has already called the INF "a relic of the Cold War." If Russia does abandon the treaty, it will likely revive the Oka, a very fast and easily targeted short-range weapon known as the "Kalashnikov of missiles." You really wouldn't want a nuclear-tipped Oka to get commandeered by the wrong sort of people. Even a drooling Qaeda-tard like Richard Reid could probably launch one. Among the serious downsides of any new arms race will be a world awash in yet more assembled nuclear weapons and material in an age of nuclear terror.

All of which is not to say that Russia is some poor little cuddle-bear that just wants to buy the world a Kvas. Far from it. Yet it is not the one leading this new nuclear waltz. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Steve Hadley can downplay missile defense until they actually believe their own words, but the difference between "defensive" or "offensive" weapons is in the eye of the beholder. And the only beholder that matters is Russia, which can wipe us all off the map a lot faster and easier than Iran or North Korea.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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