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Putin keeps coming back specifically to "missile defense" in NATO countries -- or waters -- because he sees it as a strategic (arguably an existential) threat to Russia's national security. During his marathon press conference on April 17, he was quite direct in articulating Russia's concerns:
"I'll use this opportunity to say a few words about our talks on missile defense. This issue is no less, and probably even more important than NATO's eastward expansion. Incidentally, our decision on Crimea was partially prompted by this. ... We followed certain logic: If we don't do anything, Ukraine will be drawn into NATO ... and NATO ships would dock in Sevastopol. ... [Key elements of the latest missile defense system are ship-borne.]
"Regarding the deployment of U.S. missile defense elements, this is not a defensive system, but part of offensive potential deployed far away from home. ... At the expert level, everyone understands very well that if these systems are deployed closer to our borders, our ground-based strategic missiles will be within their striking range."
On this neuralgic issue of missile defense in Europe, ostensibly aimed at hypothetical future missiles fired by Iran, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has taken a perverse delight in having increased concerns in Moscow that such a system might eventually be used against Russian ICBMs.
In his book Duty, Gates defends himself against accusations from the Right that it was his concern for Russian sensitivities that prompted him to revise the missile defense plan for Europe. The revised system included sea-based missiles that were not only cheaper but also more easily and cheaply produced. (Does anyone see why Putin might have been concerned about NATO ships based in Crimea?)
"I sincerely believed the new program was better -- more in accord with the political realities in Europe and more effective against the emerging Iranian threat," Gates added. "While there certainly were some in the State Department and the White House who believed the third site in Europe was incompatible with the Russian 'reset,' we in Defense did not. Making the Russians happy wasn't exactly on my to-do list."
Gates proudly noted that the Russians quickly concluded that the revised plan was even worse from their perspective, as it eventually might have capabilities against Russian intercontinental missiles.
As for President Obama, in an exchange picked up by microphones during his meeting with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Seoul in March 2012, Obama asked him to tell incoming President Putin to give him some "space" on controversial issues, "particularly missile defense."
Obama seemed to be suggesting that he might be able to be more understanding of Russian fears later. "After my election I have more flexibility," Obama added. But it seems a safe bet that Putin and Medvedev are still waiting to see what may eventuate from the "space" they gave Obama.
Since taking over as Secretary of State in February 2013, John Kerry seems to be doing his best to fill Gates's "tough-guy" role baiting the Russian bear. Kremlin leaders, after watching how close Kerry came to getting the U.S. to start a major war with Syria on evidence he knew was, at best, flimsy, simply cannot afford to dismiss as adolescent chest-pounding Kerry's nonchalant remarks on the possibility that the troubles in Ukraine could lead to nuclear confrontation.
As much of a loose cannon as Kerry has been, he is, after all, U.S. Secretary of State. In an extraordinary interview with the Wall Street Journal on April 28, Kerry made clear that the Obama administration and the U.S. military/intelligence establishment are "fully aware" that escalation of the crisis in Ukraine could lead to nuclear war. Are we supposed to say, "Wow, great!"?
A Half-Century Perspective
Though my Sino-Russian lens is 50 years old, I think that the perspective of time can be an advantage. In January 1964, as a CIA analyst, I became responsible for analyzing Soviet policy toward China. The evidence we had -- mostly, but not solely, public acrimony -- made it clear to us that the Sino-Soviet dispute was real and was having important impact on world events. We were convinced that reconciliation between the two giants was simply out of the question.
Our assessments were right at the time, but we ultimately were wrong about the irreconcilable differences. It turns out that nothing is immutable, especially in the face of ham-handed U.S. diplomacy.
The process of ending Moscow's unmitigated hostility toward China began in earnest during Gorbachev's era, although his predecessors did take some halting steps in that direction. It takes two to tango, and we analysts were surprised when Gorbachev's Chinese counterparts proved receptive to his overtures and welcomed a mutual agreement to thin out troops along the 7,500-kilometer border.
In more recent years, however, the impetus toward rapprochement has been the mutual need to counterbalance the "one remaining superpower in the world." The more that President George W. Bush and his "neo-conservative" helpers threw their weight around in the Middle East and elsewhere, the more incentive China and Russia saw in moving closer together.
Gone is the "great-power chauvinist" epithet they used to hurl at each other, though it would seem a safe bet that the epithet emerges from time to time in private conversations between Chinese and Russian officials regarding current U.S. policy.