Austin Bay

Who wants to protect Europe from Iranian missiles?

The Czech Republic's Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek supports an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shield. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, disdains it -- or, at least, that was his government's diplomatic stance a few news cycles ago.

The current bout of "Euro-ABM" diplomacy vaguely echoes the 1990s' diplomacy of NATO expansion. In the 1990s, former Soviet satellites like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic demanded immediate entrance into NATO. The Kremlin objected, describing NATO expansion as a dire threat. Kremlin politicians claimed expansion was a slow invasion by the West -- an appeal to Russian historical fears. Marxism may have been discredited, but Marxist rhetoric provided another propaganda ploy. NATO expansion was also called a cloak for U.S. imperialism.

NATO expansion proved to be no threat to Russia. For better and for worse, the Russia of 2007 isn't the resigned and deflated Russia of 1995. On the plus side, the Russian economy is meshing with the rest of Europe's, for the benefit of all. The rest of Europe needs Russia's resources, and Russia needs the European market. A stable, confident, economically productive Eastern Europe has proved to be a boon to Russia. NATO's role in creating political confidence in Eastern Europe may not have been pivotal, but it certainly bolstered that confidence.

On the down side, Russia's government acts with increasing authoritarianism, jailing political opponents and bullying dissidents. Charges of involvement in the assassination of journalists and dissidents tag Putin's Kremlin.

As for the Euro-ABM issue, at the moment key Eastern European nations support the ABM, while a deeply suspicious Russia vacillates between belligerent rejection and tentative cooperation.

NATO's Poland and the Czech Republic are seriously discussing their future roles in an ABM system. The Czech Republic would accept a radar site, while Poland would deploy ground-based interceptor anti-missile missiles.

The Russians, however, are saber-rattling -- and portraying the Euro-ABM as a system designed to shoot down Russian missiles. That's demonstrably false. The proposed system is poorly positioned and much too "thin" to counter Russian missiles. Nevertheless, in March Russia said it could upgrade its missile arsenal if a Euro-ABM were built. One Russian foreign ministry official "ruled out" ABM cooperation.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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