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.
Germany's Angela Merkel understands the threat posed by rogue nations like Iran. Merkel wants to construct a "common position" in Europe regarding missile defense -- escaping the United States versus Russia template and assuring the Kremlin that this will be a cooperative defense system. Merkel believes Europe cannot afford to split on the ABM issue, as it did on the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Everyone, including the Kremlin, seems to agree that we now face 21st century threats very different from the 20th century's East-West bloc confrontation.
This week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko sent a mixed signal, saying that Russian cooperation with NATO depends "on the choice of final configuration of the layered missile defense system being developed."
The evolving Russian position appears to be a begrudging "yes" to a NATO-European system, a "no" to a U.S. system. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, wrote in the International Herald Tribune on April 6 that "Russia has every reason to be interested in close cooperation in creating Eurasian missile-defense systems." But Kosachev also said Russia and Europe risk "humiliation" by remaining dependent on the United States to run the system.
In other words, Russia wants a strong say in the system's deployment and operation. Never say never -- Russian operational participation could be part of a final deal.
The U.S. Department of Defense says that Iran could have ICBMs by 2015, so there is time to deploy. At the minimum, a Euro-ABM gives the West a "deterrent in place," which creates diplomatic leverage in a crisis. Poland's interceptors are only part of the system envisioned. A "layered" system could include short-range ABMs near European cities. The United States estimates this system would have a 60 percent to 80 percent chance of intercepting an Iranian missile fired at London.
Is that worth the expense and political tradeoffs? Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Pekala recently noted 60 percent "is a whole lot better than zero percent."