New Cold War: US missile defence and Russia

09 May 2007
US plans to build ballistic missile defences in Europe and further encircle Russia with NATO forces are triggering a new and dangerous rivalry, argues Praful Bidwai.
Boris Yeltsin's death was an occasion for many Western leaders and commentators to reflect on,or rather gloat over, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and eventually, Russia's transition to a bizarre, autocratic, oligarch-dominated form of capitalism. In some ways, this was only natural. Yeltsin presided over the burial of the last remains of the socialist system of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and wrought structural changes, including the introduction of private property, which would ensure that Russia would never return smoothly to collective ownership of the means of production in any form. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin had decided, in his own way, that radical change or, if you like, a counter-revolution, was inevitable; mere "reforms" like glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (restructuring) would not do. He lacked any vision of the future, nor had the conceptual tools with which to execute a transition to capitalism. But he was fanatically dedicated to the transition, in its own destructive, criminalised, mafia-led ways. Yeltsin carried to its logical conclusion the resettlement of Europe in the West's favour, begun by Gorbachev— without negotiation and assurances of stability, and on terms entirely dictated by the United States. He dismantled the state apparatus, including the KGB (only to revive it for his own narrow purposes). He made Russia wholly dependent on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while abolishing Comecon (the East European economic and trade cooperation arrangement) and ignoring calls for a common currency in the 15 republics that had constituted the USSR. As the economy collapsed and tax collection ceased, Yeltsin created "shares" from the huge assets of state-owned companies and distributed them so that oligarchs and racketeers would corner them. For Western leaders, it was not enough that Yeltsin did all this and more, including getting Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to give up their nuclear weapons, pulling out Russian troops from the Baltic states, and signing a treaty of cooperation with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Yet, for all this, the West refused to give Yeltsin any serious assurances that NATO would not enter the USSR's old "sphere of influence" and drop its anti-USSR/Russia military doctrine. All that Yeltsin managed to receive from the West was Russia's admission into the Group of seven industrialised nations as its eighth member, a reward, as Bill Clinton put it, for his critical "cooperation on security issues". This was an entirely symbolic, and largely hollow, gesture. The West, in particular the U.S., still remains unreconciled to accepting Russia as "a European state", although Catharine the Great declared this in 1767. This is in spite of Russia's massive contribution to European literature, music and culture. The U.S. is even less reconciled to Russia's rise as a significant power with a continental size, a wealth of natural resources, and its crucial location in the Eurasian landmass just as it regains its importance in the world. Washington will brook no challenge to its hegemonic power and authority, present or potential. Like China, Russia too must be "contained" although not even a nominally Communist party rules it. The U.S. has made systematic efforts to create regimes and promote forces inimical to Russia through its "colour revolutions" in the neighbouring countries, especially Georgia and Ukraine. Through NATO, it has mounted pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova as a precondition for ratifying the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) of 1990 (amended in 1999). This limits the number of troops and heavy weapons in continental Europe. Fifteen years after the Cold War ended, this is creating new tensions between NATO and Russia. Worse, the U.S. has thrust ahead with its plans to deploy a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system for Europe by basing 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. Although BMD does not pose the short-term threat of "neutralising" the thousands of intercontinental missiles that Russia has, it is being installed right at Russia's doorstep. Enhancing its capacity would certainly destabilise the precarious nuclear balance that exists in Europe in the medium and long run. Although BMD, or "Son of Star Wars", has not proved reliable in detecting and intercepting missile launches, it is not excluded that its performance will improve greatly in the coming years. Washington has been preparing the ground for BMD right since the mid-1990s, and particularly after it unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which prohibits the deployment of BMD and development of certain technological capabilities integral to it. Russia has always resented this. Moscow certainly, and rightly, sees the European BMD as an aggressive U.S. manoeuvre to gain power and influence on the European continent. It has strongly objected to it and declared that it is "unacceptable" for the U.S. to use Europe as its "own strategic territory". It regards BMD as a "threat to global security" and "a serious destabilising factor that can significantly impact on regional and global security". Washington has disingenuously tried to soften Russia's opposition to BMD with offers of strategic "cooperation" and other "sweetners" such as sharing intelligence about "common threats", and permitting Russian officials to inspect its future missile bases. But Russia has spurned these and declared that it will make its own military response to the U.S.-sponsored BMD. This response includes an upgrading of Russia's nuclear missile arsenal so that it is harder to intercept, putting more missiles on mobile launchers, and moving its fleet of nuclear submarines to the North Pole, where their detection becomes nearly impossible. Equally important, Russia has said it will consider announcing a "moratorium on Russian adherence to [the CFE] until it has been ratified by all NATO countries". The CFE, which was tilted more in favour of reducing Warsaw Pact than NATO forces, led to the destruction of 60,000 armoured vehicles, heavy artillery and aircraft, and the reduction of the two blocs' armies in Europe from 5.7 million soldiers to less than three million. Russia has also threatened to abrogate one of the most successful arms control and reduction agreements ever signed, namely, the Intermediate Forces Treaty of 1987, under which all medium-range missiles were to be dismantled and literally chopped up. Rebuilding medium-range missiles will be a setback to global security. Even if Russia does not carry out these threats, it seems highly probable that a new arms race will begin in Europe. This will be deeply destabilising for the world. But even in the absence of an arms race, BMD will inflict enormous damage upon the security architecture of the big powers and the crucial doctrinal assumptions that sustain it. One of them is the notion of nuclear deterrence; another is balance. Nuclear deterrence is a deeply flawed doctrine on which to base one's long-term security. It also involves unconscionable risks. Yet, it can and does play a role in the short run in resisting the temptation for a nuclear-military misadventure, and in preventing the actual use of nuclear weapons. However, BMD will completely upset the delicate balances that make deterrence possible, even conceivable. If an enemy missile can be intercepted and destroyed before it can re-enter the atmosphere and hit its target, it loses its function of inflicting "unacceptable damage" upon you. Unreliability of interceptor degrades deterrence; it does not make BMD non-menacing. U.S. plans to push ahead with BMD are sure to tempt other countries to do the same. Many E.U. member-states, especially Germany, are worried at this and are counselling restraint and caution. But it is far from clear if President George W. Bush will pay any heed to them. He is hostage to the U.S. military-industrial complex and to hard lobbying by the neoconservatives, who favour BMD. Where does India stand on BMD? For decades, New Delhi condemned it because it would destabilise global security and lead to the militarisation of outer space. But in May 2001, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh suddenly made a U-turn and announced India's support for the U.S.' BMD plans even ahead of its NATO allies. He claimed that the U.S. agreed to help India with its own BMD. This has not been strongly repudiated by the Manmohan Singh government, which, too, seems to favour joint cooperation between India, the U.S. and Israel on missile defence. We are, thus, likely to see another, huge, strategic capitulation on India's part. Rather than oppose BMD development and deployment, India is likely to cave in. That would be a shame. Frontline