Echoes of The Cold War in Russia’s new stance

BERLIN — The Poles have had their ups and downs with the Bush administration. But one thing Warsaw succeeded in obtaining was an agreement to base parts of the Pentagon’s controversial antiballistic missile system in Poland.

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The accord was clinched days after Russia invaded Georgia last August, timing that fueled suspicions by the Kremlin about America’s intentions. President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have repeatedly claimed that U.S. interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic are not about stopping missiles from the Middle East, but instead are about undermining Russia’s national security.

During his state of the nation address — hours after Barack Obama’s victory — Medvedev threatened to deploy short-range, high-precision tactical missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, two NATO members.

Even by Russia’s low standards of etiquette and protocol, Medvedev’s speech was ungracious, belligerent and unnecessary. Obama has made no commitments to pursue the missile defense program, as he made clear in a telephone call last weekend to President Lech Kaczynski of Poland.

«Obama’s position is as it was throughout the campaign: he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable,» said Denis McDonough, Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser.

Medvedev’s speech was revealing for another reason. It showed how the discourse of disarmament and arms control that was prevalent during the 1980s and early 1990s in Washington and Moscow had been replaced by two things: a Kremlin willing to use force against its neighbors and the policies of President George W. Bush, which largely discarded multilateral arms control negotiations as a means of curbing proliferation.

«While proliferation has been high on the international agenda with the emphasis on Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, disarmament has not,» said Eckart von Klaeden, a foreign policy spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc in Germany. «I hope that the Obama presidency will change this. Reducing the number of nuclear warheads — Russia has more than 5,000 — also reduces the risk of nuclear proliferation.»

Obama’s team is not only taking a hard look at the expense and efficacy of the missile shield project, but also Obama has already said it was «time to send a clear message: America seeks a world with no nuclear weapons.» There is also a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington to resuscitate disarmament talks. The defeated Republican candidate, John McCain, said the «United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament.»

And in a seminal essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, Ivo Daalder, of the Brookings Institution, and Jan Lodal, a former senior U.S. Defense Department official, said the «next president will have the opportunity to make the elimination of all nuclear weapons the organizing principle of U.S. nuclear policy.»

Is there any chance that the Kremlin might join the White House in opening a new chapter in arms control? Between them, the two countries have more than 10,000 nuclear warheads. During the Cold War, the Russians had placed more emphasis on nuclear disarmament than the Americans. But today, because Russia is far behind the United States in terms of conventional weapons, it wants to hold on to its nuclear arsenal as a means of compensating for this imbalance, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, founded 50 years ago in London with a focus on nuclear deterrence and arms control.

The Kremlin is paying a high price for such a policy, as confirmed by last weekend’s accident on the Nerpa nuclear submarine, in which 20 people died. «The Nerpa took 15 years to build; the vessel’s technology had become outdated, and nobody remains in the factory with personal experience in building nuclear submarines,» Aleksandr Golts, a Russian defense expert, said in Tuesday’s issue of The Moscow Times.

Furthermore, if a link could be re-established between disarmament and nuclear proliferation, it could serve Russia’s interests. Its southern, unstable regions are not far from Iran, which is developing a nuclear capability, and Russia has to consider its great rival, China, as well as India and Pakistan, which are nuclear powers.

Yet for all these reasons, it is hard to know if the Kremlin is bluffing by threatening to base Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. The Kremlin promised eight years ago to mass-produce these missiles, but so far it has established a single squadron consisting of six missiles instead of five Iskander-equipped brigades, according to Golts.

The particular Iskander missile that might be deployed in Kaliningrad has a range of 400 kilometers, or 250 miles, with a potential to be increased to 500 kilometers. That would allow Russia to target almost anywhere in Poland.

But a 500-kilometer range would violate the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed between the United States and the former Soviet Union in 1987, which requires both sides to destroy nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The Kremlin would be abetting a new arms race, albeit one it accuses the Bush administration of starting by placing its missile shield in Eastern Europe.

In spite of all this, Russia has given little indication that it might be interested in radical nuclear disarmament talks. At the very least, what it will demand in return for cooperation with Obama is that the United States abandon Bush’s missile defense policy. Thus, the missile shield issue has become one of Obama’s first big foreign policy tests, even before he takes office in January.

Obama himself is clearly conscious of this. Rather than being provoked by Medvedev’s rude speech — which Russian Foreign Ministry officials have since scrambled to play down — Obama telephoned him last Saturday, telling Medvedev how both countries needed a constructive relationship for the sake of global security.

It will require real statesmanship by Washington and Moscow to reach a compromise that could put arms control at the top of the security agenda of both countries. Obama seems ready for change. But is Medvedev?