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Missile Impossible: How the Russians View America's AMD Backdown

By       Message Rakesh Krishnan Simha     Permalink
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Pentagon hawks don't usually transform into doves. Likewise, US presidents are known for bombing small - if somewhat wayward - countries into a pulp rather than making conciliatory moves. Still, when Barack Obama pulled the plug on the much maligned anti-missile defense (AMD), it wasn't entirely unexpected.

Neither were the reactions. While cries of betrayal haven't stopped echoing through the capitals of Eastern and Central Europe, people from countries without as serious a death wish as Poland have hailed Obama's move. The response from American commentators was entirely on predictable lines - from "Poland for Russia, not a bad trade!" to "OK, we've done our part, now will the Russians please deliver Ahmadijenad's head."

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But Russia is unaware of any tradeoff. From their side of the fence the picture doesn't look rosy at all. "By temporarily dropping its missile shield, the US is just trying to sell a dead cat for good money," says Konstantin Sivkov, the Vice President of the Moscow-based Academy of Geopolitical Problems.

Indeed, the US decision not to proceed with building the AMD over Eastern Europe to shoot down Iranian missiles seems to be a strategic retreat.

Strategic retreat represents a partial solution to the bitter-end problem. When confronted with a losing situation, the losing party accepts defeat in a way which allows them to preserve as much of their resources as possible. They then set about the task of building their power base so that they can raise the issue more successfully in the future.

The Russians, masters of strategic retreat, which helped them destroy first Napoleon and later Hitler, recognize Obama's gambit. Adds Sivkov: "The US decision to drop its missile defense plans is positive. But it's not a breakthrough that gives the US and NATO the right to demand military and technical concessions from Russia. One of the new radars and naval missile components could be set up in the Caucasus, anyway. Georgia has already agreed to host the radar."

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From the Russian perspective, the American climbdown is inexplicable. Since the voluntary dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has been doing pretty much what it pleases. It has pulverized Iraq (a former Russian client) not once but twice, bombed Serbia (an Orthodox Slav nation having deep ties with the Russian people), carved out Kosovo, and now roams with impunity in Afghanistan, which was once firmly under Moscow's thumb. Also, going against all precepts of detente, Washington has encroached upon Russia's backyard and brought NATO fighters minutes to Moscow.

So why the sudden American back-paddling on AMD? Viktoria Panova, political analyst at Moscow State University of International Relations, believes by abandoning its initial plans Washington wants to show "the positive way America thinks now."

"America could say: OK, we've done that, but we can reverse it or continue either with this scenario or a slightly modified one," says Panova. "America can push Russia either on Iran or another issue of concern, so it's very similar to what it was during the last days of the Soviet Union when America was playing with the ABM system being developed."

Then, using that threat as an instrument, the US managed to alter the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that Russia was pushing for into a more favorable one for America. So in a way, Obama's climbdown is designed so that the US has "some trumps up its sleeve."

But forget a trump card, at this juncture, perhaps for the first time in its history, America is fighting with its back to the wall. With real unemployment close to 15 per cent and full economic recovery a pipe-dream, the US can barely afford to fight two wars at the same time let alone fund AMD research. NATO convoys in Pakistan are regularly ambushed and it is increasingly relying on Russian routes to feed and bolster 110,000 American and NATO soldiers. To menace Moscow while it ensures safe passage of thousands of NATO trucks and planes through its sphere of influence would not just be chutzpah, it would be suicidal.

Amazingly for a defensive weapon, AMD has only generated insecurity - both among US allies and Russia. Obama knows - as do the Russians - that the US won't risk Washington DC for Warsaw. If the Russians turn Poland into a parking lot, the Americans are unlikely to reach for the doomsday button.

Obama wants to avoid a situation where he is stuck with the security seekers (Poland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia) while the providers (Germany, France, Spain, Italy) walk out of the American umbrella, a very real possibility as France and Germany have been clamoring for a separate European Army.

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Finally, it seems the Americans, who have spent $150 billion and 25 years on Star Wars, are convinced AMD will not provide failsafe security. Indeed, AMD against nuclear tipped missiles may simply be unworkable.

Commenting on Russian moves to dispatch an S-400 AMD system to meet a possible threat from North Korea's missile tests, Russia's Sivkov said it would be wrong to think that the air defense system would destroy a missile from Pyongyang and ensure it would not fall on the Russian territory.

"A missile in this case only changes its trajectory, but it could still fall on our territory," Sivkov noted. "And if a missile is destroyed above the territory of North Korea, it would be an act of aggression against that country." AMD, therefore, may the ultimate lose-lose weapon.

The world may think AMD is history but what the Russians believe is more plausible - it has only been mothballed.


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Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer.

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