The War of Words Over Missile Defense
Congressman Lantos (D-CA) and President Bush on Capitol Hill
Last week President Bush joined many distinguished members of Congress to dedicate the U.S. Memorial to the Victims of Communism. After the U.S. Holocaust Museum was opened in Washington D.C. near the National Mall in 1993, several members of Congress and non-profit organizations began calling for the creation of a similar memorial to the victims of Communism in the nation's capitol.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the new museum was held on Tuesday, June 12, 2007. While the ceremony was intended to honor the victims who suffered under Communist dictatorships in the 20th century, Congressman Lantos's remarks at the event veered into current events related to post-Soviet Russia. Specifically, the Congressman insulted former German Chancellor Gerhard SchrÃ¶der for taking a job with Nordstream, a subsidiary of Russia's state-owned natural gas monopoly, Gazprom.
"I referred to him as a political prostitute...now that he's taking big checks from (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. But the sex workers in my district objected, so I will no longer use that phrase." Lantos reportedly said to "scattered applause" from the thousand people in attendance.
You can watch Congressman Lantos speech in this video
The Hungarian-born Lantos is the only Holocaust survivor currently serving in Congress. He became chairman of the U.S. House International Relations Committee when the Democrats won a Congressional majority in the 2006 midterm elections. Lantos delivered his remarks before President Bush arrived at the event.
German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm rejected the remark "clearly and decisively.
"This is an unseemly level of discourse with a former chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany," Wilhelm told the German press agency DPA in Berlin.
SchrÃ¶der's party, the Social Democrats (SPD), also jumped to the former chancellor's defense.
SPD general secretary Hubertus Heil said that if the remarks were correct, they were simply a "sign of political stupidity and tastelessness."...
After the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in November 2006 (see the Russia Blog post "The New Congress and U.S.-Russia Relations"), the opinion among Russian political analysts was that there would be either no change or that relations between Washington and Moscow would get even worse. For a while, it looked like the pessimists had been proven right.
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on Fox News Sunday
Last week the Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain published an op-ed in the Financial Times calling for the West to take a harder line against Russia. In his op-ed, Senator McCain accused the Kremlin of silencing political dissent and directing the "the largest state-directed seizure of private wealth and foreign investment since the 1930s" and advocated expelling Russia from the G-8. Senator McCain was once considered the front-runner to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, but in recent weeks he has struggled to raise as much money among Republicans as his leading rivals former New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani, former Massachussets Governor Mitt Romney, and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson.
U.S.-Russia relations reached a new low one week before the G-8 summit, when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia may consider retargeting its missiles at Europe if the U.S. went forward with a missile defense system in Poland. President Putin's sudden conciliatory offer to host an American radar at a Russian military base in Azerbaijan seemed like a bolt from the blue.
President Bush and President Putin talk to the press after meeting at the G-8
Viewed in hindsight, however, the Kremlin offer should not have been so surprising. The Russian President was the first world leader to call President Bush on September 11, 2001 and offer America access to his country's bases for use in the upcoming offensive against Al-Qaeda. Many members of Russia's State Duma have since complained that America exploited this act of solidarity by allegedly using former Soviet bases in Central Asia to "encircle" Russia. While these Russians are wrong to suggest that there is an American-led conspiracy to keep Russia down, they do have a point.
Who could have imagined when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that fully armed American bombers would be routinely flying through Russian airspace just ten years later? And who could have imagined, when Russian and American intelligence agencies cooperated to help Aghanistan's rag-tag Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban, that relations would be this bad just a few years later?
Last week U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates welcomed Putin's proposal, but added that the Bush Administration has no plans to delay the installation of ten anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) in Poland while it considers the Russians' idea. Russia currently pays Azerbaijan $7.5 million a year to lease a twenty year-old radar tracking station in Gabala, Azerbaijan. What is most important for the U.S. is the fact that the base is just a few hundred miles from Iran, which is suspected of covertly developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
A Russia Today TV video about the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan
Some American defense analysts have claimed that Gabala is too vulnerable to a potential Iranian attack to risk replacing the obsolete Russian radar at the site with an advanced American system. However, during his extensive interview with reporters at the G-8 summit, Putin suggested that if the Bush Administration is really worried about missiles being launched from Iran, then it can negotiate with the new Iraqi government to place interceptors in that country. Clearly Putin was not suggesting that the U.S. place ABMs in Baghdad, but in relatively secure Iraqi Kurdistan, where American forces are likely to quietly maintain a military presence for years to come.
The current and projected range of Iran's missiles
Predictably, some critics have dismissed Putin's proposal as an empty gesture. The Economist (a global business magazine that has never been bullish on Russia) harrumphed, "it seems unlikely that Mr Putin means to help build Europe's missile shield, rather than sabotage it." On the other hand, some conservative American media outlets such as the Washington Times have seized upon Putin's offer as proof that even the Kremlin now recognizes the need for missile defenses in an uncertain world. For their part, the liberal-leaning members of the Los Angeles Times editorial board have questioned the value of spending billions on missile defense while America is fighting two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever the merits of missile defense, it is technically correct that the U.S. has many options for defending Europe from nuclear blackmail other than placing ABM launchers on Russia's doorstep - including placing interceptors in friendly countries closer to Iran or on U.S. Navy ships at sea. Ballistic missiles are most vulnerable to being shot down during their boost phase, when they cannot lob decoys to throw off infrared tracking by ground stations, sensor-equipped aircraft, or satellites in space. It is more feasible to shoot down a ballistic missile on its way up than to knock out a nuclear warhead hurtling towards the earth at 15,000 miles an hour.
The U.S.S. Lake Erie is the U.S. Navy's testbed for an AEGIS-based ballistic missile defense system
Furthermore, the idea of the U.S. and Russia creating a joint missile defense system is now more than twenty years old. No less a Cold Warrior than President Ronald Reagan offered to share Strategic Defense Initiative technology with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit in 1986.
While it is true that the Kremlin does not see Iran as an immediate threat the way the White House does, there is a more fundamental reason why Russia spurned all U.S. offers to join a NATO missile defense system until last week.
Today the Russian economy is booming after a decade of decline. In spite of this recent success story, Russian government ministers worry about their nation's shrinking population and question whether the Russian Federation will be able to fully man its armed forces in the 21st century. Retired Russian generals fret about China acquiring Russia's Far East without firing a shot, through decades of peaceful demographic conquest. Russian strategists view a well-maintained nuclear arsenal as Russia's best insurance policy in an uncertain world. If Russia were to join an effective NATO missile defense system, they fear that China could be tempted to expand its current arsenal of a few dozen ICBMs to several hundred missiles while expanding the global arms race into outer space. This is a scenario Russia cannot afford and wants to avoid at all costs.
American defense analysts may respond here that the Russians are simply being paranoid, and they should not be worried about Russia losing control over its territory and natural resources by the end of this century. China definitely has more than enough internal problems that would seem to preclude a policy of aggressive expansion, including a rapidly aging work force (an unintended consequence of China's one-child policy), severe pollution, massive internal migration, and occasional rioting by disenfranchised farmers. But as Russia's history in the last 200 years has proven, even paranoids can have enemies. President Reagan recognized this historic reality and reached out to Gorbachev in the late 1980s, giving both sides the opportunity to end the Cold War. Will the next American and Russian Presidents be able to follow their example in creating a better world? Let us hope so.