US-Russia tensions rise over antimissile bases

A top advisor to President Bush left for Moscow Tuesday to deal with rising tensions between the US and Russia over American plans to build missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The International Herald Tribune reports that national security advisor Stephen Hadley set out for talks in Moscow just a day after a Russian general warned that Poland and the Czech Republic could become targets if they played host to US antimissile bases, meant to defend against Iranian ballistic missiles.

The trip by the adviser, Stephen Hadley, was planned weeks ago. But it now comes in the context of the harsh Russian words about the antimissile plan, the earlier stinging denunciation of U.S. policy by [Russian] President Vladimir Putin, and the underlying Russian suggestion that a hidden American agenda is designed to expand its influence in Eastern Europe.

Comments earlier this month by Mr. Putin were hostile to the US missile defense plan, saying that American plans to build such a shield had "overstepped its national boundaries in every way."

RIA Novosti reports that those American antimissle bases could prompt Russia to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that the US and USSR signed in 1987. Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, said Tuesday that "If a political decision is taken to quit the treaty, the Strategic Missile Forces are ready to carry out this task." RIA Novosti adds that Mr. Solovtsov's comments were not the first time that Russia has publicly mentioned leaving the treaty.

Army General Yury Baluyevsky, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said last February 15 that Moscow might unilaterally abandon the treaty.

"It is possible for a party to abandon the treaty [unilaterally] if it provides convincing evidence that it is necessary to do so," said Baluyevsky. "We currently have such evidence."

The INF treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles). By the treaty's deadline of June 1, 1991, a total of 2,692 such weapons had been destroyed, 846 by the U.S. and 1,846 by the Soviet Union.

The Associated Press reports that Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski dismissed the Russian threat as "an attempt to frighten" Poland, saying Russia's stance is not about security, but rather about influence.

"To make it clear - this is not about Russian security; these installations do not in any way threaten Russia," Jaroslaw Kaczynski said on state Radio 1. "It's about the status of Poland and Russian hopes that the zone, in other words Poland, will once again find itself ... in the Russian sphere of influence."

"From the moment the missile bases are installed here, the chances of that happening, for at least decades to come, very much declines," he said.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg similarly dismissed Russian comments, calling them "blackmail," reports Reuters.

"The Czechs will now think the shield is even more necessary," Schwarzenberg told Reuters on the sidelines of a business conference in Warsaw.

"We have quite an experience with Russians. You have to make clear to them you won't succumb to blackmail. Once you give in to blackmail, there's no going back. We have to be strong."

However, the Guardian reports that while the center-right, pro-American governments of Poland and the Czech Republic support the missile defense plan, "some opposition parties are against the plan and polls in recent weeks suggest that up to two-thirds of Poles and Czechs oppose their country taking part."

There is concern among some that greater ties with the US will increase the threat of domestic terrorism. A recent poll showed that 53% of Poles opposed hosting a base, while 34% were in favour.

The Guardian also writes that although Mr. Kaczynski and his Czech counterpart, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, both oppose referendums on the defense plan, they still have concerns about the presence of sovereign US bases on their soil and the efficacy of the Bush administration, given its troubles in Iraq.

Despite Polish and Czech claims that Russia's response is about influence, Russia says that it is a matter of national security, reports The Washington Post, as Iran, the shield's purported focus, is decades away from being a missile threat.

Russian officials have said that Iran has no missiles capable of reaching the United States or even Western Europe and that Iran is incapable of developing them any time soon. Sergei Ivanov, then defense minister, told the German newspaper Die Welt this month that it would take "at least 20 years" for Iran to develop missiles that could reach Central Europe.

"I think you can draw your own conclusions about which missiles this system actually targets," Solovtsov said. "This is why we are watching the situation with anxiety and concern."

But the Post adds that US officials admit that if they wanted, Russia could easily overwhelm the missile shield - which only includes 10 interceptors. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency, said in January that the interceptors "are directed toward rogue nations' capabilities, not an obviously sophisticated ballistic missile fleet such as the Russians have."

Still, some experts understand Russia's concern. Otfried Nassauer, director of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security, tells German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the presence of US bases in Poland and the Czech Republic would represent a renege of NATO promises to refrain from military expansion into new NATO member states near Russia.

As NATO planned its expansion to the East, the alliance had guaranteed Russia it would not station any important military capacities on the new members' territory for the long-term, Nassauer said.

"Now Moscow feels betrayed because the biggest NATO state doesn't feel bound (to that guarantee) and wants to station national rather than NATO capacities," he said.

Global intelligence provider Stratfor writes that while abandoning the INF treaty would not make Russia a direct threat to the US, it would effectively neutralize the threat to Russia of American missile interceptors, while also dramatically shifting Russian military influence in Europe.

Though a direct arms race with the United States remains out of the question, a lopsided race in which the Russians focus on IRBMs [intermediate-range ballistic missiles] could change the game entirely. A barrage of several dozen IRBMs easily could overwhelm a small squadron of BMD [ballistic missile defense] interceptors based in Europe -- as well as any system that the United States conceivably might field in the next 20 years.

To be clear, this is not an option that would buy Russia parity with the United States. But it would be a stout reminder to Europe -- and to the United States by extension -- that even a weakened Moscow is not to be trifled with. Unable to reclaim the global power it wielded during the Soviet era, Russia nevertheless could use a new IRBM force to threaten Europe and, in so doing, resurrect a host of diplomatic options that served Kremlin interests very well in the past.

Such a step might not mark Russia as a resurgent world power, but it certainly would reforge perceptions of Russia as a power that is impossible to ignore.

Nonetheless, Russia says that the tensions over the US missile defense system will not lead to a new arms race, reports RIA Novosti. "The current developments in the world do not point at a new variant of the Cold War," Mr. Lavrov said.

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