Calling the BMD Bluff

8 June 2007

Calling the BMD Bluff

By Gwynne Dyer

Vladimir Putin is definitely a player, and the proposal that the Russian president sprang on George W. Bush at the G8 meeting in Germany on Thursday was a classic political ambush. You claim to be putting interceptor missiles and X-band radars into Eastern Europe to intercept nuclear-tipped, long-range missiles coming out of Iran, said Putin to Bush. So why don’t you make our radar station in Azerbaijan, which overlooks all of Iran from its perch high in the Caucasus mountains, part of the system?

The Bush administration has no intention of letting Russia share in its beloved Ballistic Missile Defence system (aka “Son of Star Wars”), nor does Russia believe that the system is either necessary or functional, but Putin’s negotiating ploy was brilliant. If Iran had either nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles (which it doesn’t), and if the United States had the technological capability to intercept such missiles (which it doesn’t), then access to a Russian radar station in the mountains north of Iran would be exactly what Washington wanted.

“Let’s let our experts have a look at it,” said President Bush about Putin’s “interesting proposal,” and that’s the last that anybody will hear about that, but it did give Putin the opportunity to show that the new US bases in Eastern Europe are not about what Washington says they are about. So what ARE they about?

That is a lot harder to answer, because the whole BMD boondoggle is a weapons system in search of a threat. Twenty-five years ago, when the Blessed Ronald Reagan first proposed the “Star Wars” system, it was going to shoot down thousands of Soviet warheads with directed energy beams, just like in the movies. Very cool. But now there is no Soviet Union, and the only BMD technology that actually exists is clunky missiles that occasionally manage to shoot down other missiles, but mostly miss or just don’t launch.

Time to move on, you might think, but Reagan is a Republican saint, and George W. Bush had promised to roll out some BMD system when he became president. Besides, there are several hundred thousand jobs in the US military and defence industry that depend directly or indirectly on BMD. So the system was unstoppable, even if it didn’t work, and in 2002 the Bush administration tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in order to be free to deploy it.

The next question was where to put it. The first choices were Alaska and California, in order to intercept the intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea doesn’t have. Next on the agenda, obviously, was stopping the non-existent Iranian missiles, which required US radars and interceptor missile bases in Eastern Europe. The Polish and Czech governments eagerly volunteered to host them, not because they believe in a threat from Iran (they don’t), but because they don’t like Russia and badly want American bases of some sort on their soil.

Interestingly, a majority of Poles and over two-thirds of Czechs don’t want the American bases, perhaps because they realise that the bases will just annoy the Russians without providing any real protection. But if all this is just meaningless military nonsense serving a domestic American political agenda, why does it annoy the Russians at all?

It actually isn’t the dysfunctional American missiles that may be installed in Eastern Europe to stop a non-existent Iranian threat that annoy the Russians. They are just a useful stick to beat the Americans with. It’s everything else that the United States and Nato have done to the Russians over the past ten years.

Shortly after he came into office, Putin asked to join Nato. The Cold War was supposedly over, but Russia’s request was rejected out of hand. Instead Nato took in new members all across Eastern Europe — and even on the territory of the former Soviet Union, in the case of the Baltic Republics. After the Cold War, Nato promised not to build new military installations in former Warsaw Pact territory, but the new bases are there in Romania and Bulgaria, and now more are planned in Poland and the Czech Republic.

In a word, arrogance. The Russians don’t count any more, so we don’t need to take their interests into account any more, or even consult with them.

Which is why, in Munich last February, Putin talked bluntly about the old days when “there was an equilibrium and a fear of mutual destruction. In those days one party was afraid to make an extra step without consulting the others. This was certainly a fragile peace and a frightening one, but seen from today it seems reliable enough. Today it seems that peace is not so reliable.”

In Moscow last week, just before Putin left for the G8 meeting, a journalist asked him: “Why are the Americans so obstinate about putting these plans for (ballistic missile defences) into practice, if it is so clear that they are unnecessary?”

Putin replied: “Possibly this is to push us to (retaliate in ways that would prevent) further closeness of Russia and Europe….I cannot exclude this possibility.” As if US foreign policy under President Bush has ever been that subtle and sophisticated. It’s a good thing that both Putin and Bush are leaving office soon.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 11. (“Interestingly…at all”; and “In a word…reliable”)