In the latest anti-Western rant, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has blamed the United States and the West for once again thwarting bilateral relations with Russia by deploying missile defense in Europe and “lying” about NATO enlargement. However, his statements are clearly political propaganda intended for internal consumption and distort the reality of events. Yet they raise questions regarding Russia’s commitment to President Barak Obama’s “reset” policy and broader Russian integration with the West.
For example, Putin has chosen to criticize the current missile defense plan of the Obama Administration. “We had just come to terms that there would be no missiles [NATO missile defense systems] in Poland…but it was suddenly announced that the same [missile defense system deployment] was planned for other European countries,” Putin stated.
However, Russia can hardly feign surprise. Nor this is “the same” system. The missile defense plans differ in technology but not in the purpose: to counter limited short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile threats from Iran. Moreover, neither the old Bush-era missile defense system called “Third Site” or the new “Phased Adaptive” system could counter an attack from the massive Russian heavy intercontinental-range ballistic missile arsenal, nor would they have the adequate range to reach Russia’s missile sites and flight trajectories.
The Russians believe and have publicly stated that the treaty imposes significant limitations on U.S. ballistic missile defenses. The Russian unilateral statement to the treaty is clear: Moscow will withdraw from the treaty if there is any “qualitative” or “quantitative” change to American missile defenses. By this statement, the Russians are effectively forcing the U.S. to choose between improving its missile defenses and keeping the treaty intact. Also troubling, the Administration has refused to share the negotiating record of the treaty with U.S. Senate, leaving many to believe that negotiators gave the Russians private assurances on limits to U.S. missile defenses. It is also worth pointing out that the Administration promised domestically not to limit ballistic missile defenses on numerous occasions.
Putin’s anti-NATO rant is even more bizarre. In his statement, “at time of the withdrawal from East Europe, the NATO secretary general promised the USSR it could be confident that NATO would not expand over its current boundaries,” Putin completely disregards the fact that there was never a written agreement between Russia and NATO members on this important subject. As a lawyer, Putin surely knows better.
Membership in NATO has always been a decision of sovereign nation-states. It is independent of Russia or the NATO Secretary General’s will, and is in accordance with international law. Moreover, NATO expansion has been a major success story for the alliance as it has played a crucial role in stabilizing and reforming large parts of Europe devastated from decades of Nazi and Soviet rule. In addition, Russia and NATO are engaging in a twenty year long cooperation, including the NATO-Russia Council. With both Russia and NATO recognizing that membership is not in the cards at this stage, accusations about the lack of cooperation from the West are completely unjustified.
Russia, instead, is voicing revisionist sentiments with regard to European and Eurasian security. In Europe, Russia wants to scramble time-tested frameworks, including NATO and OSCE, to launch new security architecture.
In Eurasia, Moscow is using its entire geopolitical toolbox such as diplomacy (including recognition of the self-proclaimed republics), strategic-information operations, arms sales, status-of-forces agreements, base construction, and even regime change, to secure its “sphere of privileged interests” and to shift the balance of power in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Russia continues to be in violation of the Paris-brokered ceasefire agreement it signed with Georgia in August 2008, which stipulates that its military must pull back to its pre-war positions (status quo ante bellum).
By all appearances there is an internal Russian political angle to the timing and the tone of Putin’s statement, one that is a poke in the eye of Medvedev-Obama’s “reset” policy. Russia will hold presidential elections in 2012 and Putin is clearly running. He is playing to the anti-Western sentiments held by the Russian elites. Putin himself has aired these sentiments, despite chummy relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy (who also brokered the Georgian peace agreement). And last but not least, anti-Western xenophobia justifies the continuation of domestic authoritarian policies.
Instead of engaging in hostile rhetoric, Russia and the United States should cooperate on the key issues currently threatening the international community, e.g., Iran’s nuclear weapon program and the threat of Islamic radicalism—both challenges close to, or inside, the Russian borders. If the Kremlin rejects U.S. overtures and inflames anti-Americanism in Russia, the United States and Russia will face a continuation of friction and bickering neither of which are in either side’s interest. And regardless of the Russian opposition, the U.S. and its allies should vigorously pursue their interests in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.