Anyone who thinks the Cold War has not started up again had better listen closely to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last Friday the United States and Russia sat down for talks on a number of issues of which defense items topped the calendar. In a tense start to the talks, according to Associated Press reports, President Putin warned our senior U.S. officials, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to back off a plan to install missile defenses in eastern Europe lest we risk harming relations with Moscow.
This is not the first time Putin has spoken on this matter. He did so earlier this year in May (see my article “Putin Threatens Europe” 06-05-07) and again when he visited President Bush in Kennebunkport later this past summer.
At issue is the decision by the United States to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland, linked to a missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic. The Pentagon says the system is all about protecting Europe and even beyond that continent, against long-range missiles that might be launched from Iran, but Russia believes the system is a step toward undermining the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal.
So far, Russia’s posturing has had no effect on America’s plans. Indeed, Secretary Rice told reporters last Thursday on her flight to Moscow that the U.S. would go ahead with the program as planned.
In a typical Russian attempt at one-up-man-ship diplomacy, Putin kept Rice and Gates waiting for 40 minutes, and then began the session with a lengthy monologue in which he also said that Russia may feel compelled to abandon its obligations under a 1987 missile treaty with the United States if it is not expanded to constrain other missile-armed countries. That pact eliminated the deployment of Soviet and American ballistic missiles of intermediate range and was considered a landmark step in arms control just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and later with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
He also made other comments that seemed particularly off the wall, including his statement that "We may decide someday to put missile defense systems on the moon, but before we get to that we may lose a chance for agreement because of you implementing your own plans."
The Associated Press reported that Rice and Gates both appeared taken aback at the firm tone and forcefulness of Putin’s remarks, which were made from notes in the presence of American and Russian news media before they began a closed-door meeting in a conference room at his country house outside the capital.
Gates responded by saying that "We have an ambitious agenda of security issues that concern both of us, including, as you suggest, development of missile systems by others in the neighborhood – I would say in particular, Iran." Rice added that "Even though we have our differences, we have a great deal in common because that which unites us in trying to deal with the threats of terrorism, of proliferation, are much greater than the issues that divide us."
The trouble with all the talk is that Russia and the U.S. are really not right n the same page. Russia did a great deal to build up the infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear program and so we cannot assume that they are really all that bothered by the fact that the Persian nation could train its weapons upon them and others. In fact they have often treated Iran as a client state rather than any kind of hostile enemy.
We must also be suspicious of Putin’s desire to keep us out of Poland and the Czech Republic. He is quoted as saying "We hope that in the process of such complex and multifaceted talks you will not be forcing forward your relations with the eastern European countries."
Granted it is early in these new talks and Putin no doubt wants to lay out his harsh ground rules and desires early on. The problem as we all know is not necessarily with the Soviets, at least not just yet, but it is with Iran. While putting in defensive missiles is a “hedge” against Iranian action, it would seem the best course of action would be to fully eliminate the nuclear capabilities of the Iranian state so that the immediate need for defensive missiles in Eastern Europe is at least muted for the time being.
The talks between Russia and the U.S., then, should really be about the absolute need to join as one body to force Iran to completely eliminate its nuclear programs. One method of accomplishing this is by penetrative on-going monitoring within that country by independent examiners, or better yet by simply going into Iran as allies, destroying the facilities and confiscating all the fissionable materials right now.
But the tough talk from Putin along with America’s seemingly solid determination to go forward with the defensive missile shield suggests rather strongly that the Cold War, far from being eliminated, has apparently simply been in warm storage for a while. The temperature is dropping rapidly.