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News :: International
Putin checkmates Bush in missile chess
11 Jun 2007
His offer to the US to share a missile shield shows the Russian leader’s guile, writes Seamus Martin.
Sunday Business Post
10 June 2007
His offer to the US to share a missile shield shows the Russian leader’s guile, writes Seamus Martin.

Russian premier Vladimir Putin came to the G8 summit at Heiligendamm last week as the West’s villain, accused of a series of nefarious acts.

He had, we were told, restarted the Cold War. His record on human rights was abysmal. He was soft on ‘‘rogue states’’. He had threatened to target Europe with his missiles.

In return, Putin had made a thinly-veiled comparison of US foreign policy to that of the Third Reich.

In the space of a few hours, all this had changed. Russians are the best chess players in the world, and Putin’s move in offering a joint missile shield based in Azerbaijan resulted in the US and its allies frantically reassessing the position of their pieces on the board.

President Bush described the proposal as ‘‘interesting’’. His national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, spoke of a ‘‘positive development’’. The ‘‘bad guy’’, it now appeared, was not all that bad.

Putin seems ready for compromise and has calmed nerves over his threat to target Europe. He has put the ball into America’s court and is in a strong position to criticise any attempt by the US to insist that anti-missile defences must be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic.

In Putin’s own words, the offer will ‘‘make it impossible - unnecessary - for us to place our offensive complexes along the borders with Europe’’.

But the offer presents difficulties, as well as advantages.

The radar station in Azerbaijan where the proposed defence system would be sited may be closer geographically to the perceived threat from Iran, but it is leased, rather than owned by Russia. Moscow’s leverage with the Azeri regime, however, is strong enough to overcome this problem.

The technical difficulties may be more serious. The New York Times has pointed out that the Russian base is merely an early warning outpost. Upgrading it to the type of missile defence system that America wants would entail a deal of trust between the two countries.

This has not been evident from their relations in the recent past. Extremely detailed co-operation in sharing technical knowledge would be necessary to upgrade the facility to the level desired by the US.

Dealing with countries such as Poland - which, according to Thursday’s Council of Europe report, has been prepared to install secret prisons for the CIA - would be a simpler and more one-sided proposition.

To Russian eyes, the plan to place missiles in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic as a defence against attack by ‘‘rogue states’’ has never seemed credible. The idea of North Korean missiles screaming overhead from Pyongyang on their way to Washington via central Europe seems to be an outrageous piece of science fiction.

As Bush and Putin discussed the matter last Thursday, the North Koreans launched two missiles. They travelled a full 100 kilometres before plunging into the sea.

The possibility of Iranian aggression is more plausible, but Iran is still a long way from developing the bomb, let alone the means to deliver it. Putin’s description of the American plan as a defence against a non-existent threat is not without justification. From Moscow, it looked suspiciously like an escalation of missile deployment in Europe as part of a plan to encircle Russia.

Russia’s reaction in American eyes seemed motivated by paranoia. There have, however, been good historic reasons for Russia’s extreme sensitivity to events on its western borders.

Time and again in its history, it has faced invasion from the west. In the 17th century, the Poles reached the gates of Moscow. In the 19th,Napoleonwas the invader and in 1941, Hitler’s attack led to the deaths of 26 million Soviet citizens.

The vast scale of these casualties has left an indelible mark on Russia and its people.

Almost every family lost someone. One family of peasant origin I knew in Moscow lost all ten sons in the conflict. In the siege of Leningrad alone, more people died than the combined American and British casualties for the entire war. It is almost impossible for anyone who is not Russian to imagine how deeply the psyche of the people has been marked by these events.

If the Russians have been over-sensitive on the anti-missile defence (AMD) issue, sensitivity has not been a strong point of the American approach. It is to be hoped that Heiligendamm will mark the end of the shouting match between the two countries.

Despite the recent exchanges, there now appears to be room for accommodation. Putin’s charges against the US, while severe, appear bland compared to the scathing criticism directed at the Bush administration by former US President Jimmy Carter.

America’s criticism of the human rights situation in Russia - and especially the restrictions on media freedom - should not exclude it from cooperation in the area of defence.

The independent organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres has placed Russia 147th out of the 167 countries it lists in its index of press freedom.

This may be nothing to be proud of, but it puts Russia ten places ahead of Pakistan and 14 in front of Saudi Arabia, countries with which the US enjoys strong military and political cooperation.

The list puts the United States in 53rd place, on a level with Botswana, Croatia and Tonga. Ireland, in joint first place with Finland, Iceland and the Netherlands, would appear to have much stronger credentials for criticising the records of other countries.

Seamus Martin is a retired Moscow correspondent and international editor of The Irish Times

This work is in the public domain
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