What is Vladimir Putin’s problem? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pay a rare joint visit to the Kremlin, and he snubs them by keeping them cooling their heels for 40 minutes. Then he treats them to a highly undiplomatic tirade before television cameras.
His diatribe was laced with threats. Should the U.S. continue with planned deployment of a small missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia will withdraw from the agreement on conventional force deployments in Europe and another treaty governing European nuclear weapons, and perhaps retaliate in additional ways. Putin’s performance, said the New York Times, “appeared to catch Gates and Rice off guard.”
Why the surprise? Because the subject of Putin’s rage, a shield avowedly intended against Iran, could not possibly diminish Russia’s nuclear deterrent. It would comprise enough interceptors to stop a handful of missiles, but Russia disposes of thousands. Moreover, lest Moscow fear that these sites could camouflage a larger anti-Russian system, the two U.S. officials came bearing a plan of transparency. As described by the Times, it
included an invitation for Russia to join the United States and NATO as a full partner in designing and operating an anti-missile system guarding all of Europe. The offer even could include invitations for Russian and American officers to inspect—and even be stationed as liaison officers at—each other’s missile defense sites.
Putin, however, was unmoved. Why? The answer can be found in his most revealing comment: “We hope . . . you will not be forcing forward your relations with the Eastern European countries.” Putin knows full well that the planned U.S. interceptors pose no threat to Russia. But they would transform America’s relationship with Poland and the Czech Republic. They are already allies, to whose defense America bears a legal and moral obligation. But nations sometimes betray allies. The missile defense installations would make those countries more than allies; they would become the frontline of America’s own defense. It would cement them to the U.S. and make it virtually unthinkable that America would ever fail to come to their defense.
Although a Russian design on these countries seems unimaginable at the moment, Putin views them as belonging to Russia’s sphere of influence. (Ergo, his designation of them as “Eastern European,” whereas they call themselves and we call them “Central European,” a term that better fits geographic as well as cultural realities.) Systematically and implacably, Putin, who publicly laments the disappearance of the Soviet Union, has rolled back democracy in Russia and worked to restore hegemony over the other former Soviet republics, the so-called “near abroad.” There is little danger that he aims to restore Communism: he seems to understand economics too well for that. But by all signs he envisions the rebirth of an imperial and authoritarian Russian state, mighty enough to silence its citizens and dominate its neighbors.
Long before Lenin, Russia subjugated whatever other nations came within its grasp, notably including Poland. Today, Warsaw and Prague are beyond reach. But tomorrow, who knows? If they cannot be conquered, perhaps they can be bent to Moscow’s will. Here, then, is the fear that stirs Putin. An American missile defense system, solidifying a special U.S-Polish-Czech relationship, will foreclose future options for the Greater Russia Putin is laboring to resurrect. That was not our original purpose, but it is another good reason to proceed full speed ahead.