- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2007

If President Bush follows through with his controversial plan to set up a defensive missile shield in two former Warsaw Pact countries, years from now historians will ask which came first: the missile shield to protect Western allies from rogue states, or a coalition of rogue states assembled by Russia to counter the missile shield proposed by the United States?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he would respond to the U.S. plan by pointing Russian missiles at Western European cities. In the unlikely event this highly explosive tit-for-tat were to develop into a new arms race, Mr. Putin knows that despite Russia’s newly found wealth thanks to the rising price of oil, Moscow would have a hard time matching the U.S. dollar for dollar.

“The West does not have an effective strategy of dealing with the challenges posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Andrei Illarionov, Mr. Putin’s former economic adviser and G-8 sherpa, now a Cato Institute senior fellow.

“Russians are not so stupid as to match the U.S. system-by-system because the U.S. has an economy that is 13 times bigger than Russia’s economy,” Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told United Press International.

“The Russians will confront the U.S. in an asymmetrical fashion,” said Mr. Cohen. “And that is through using energy resources as the new instruments of foreign policy and political insolence, through supporting the anti-American forces around the world.”

Having learned from the Cold War that a direct confrontation with the United States is expensive and ultimately lost that war for Soviet Russia, the Russians could instead challenge the United States indirectly. As an example, Mr. Cohen argued the Russians could build a new coalition of “rogue states” including Iran, Venezuela, possibly Cuba and North Korea and Syria — and in the process make U.S. life miserable. The Russians also could try to play the Chinese card against the U.S. The Heritage scholar notes the irony of such a move by Moscow.

“Whichever future coalition may be created, Russia is doomed to play second fiddle to China,” said Mr. Cohen. “If China becomes a part of this coalition, Russia will play second fiddle, and if the coalition does not include China it will probably not have the critical mass to severely obstruct U.S. foreign policy.”

Still, Mr. Bush’s plan to install a system of “defensive missiles” in the Czech Republic and Poland has the Russians seeing red.

The U.S. president’s attempts at placating the Russian president seem to fall on deaf ears; Mr. Bush told Mr. Putin that the missile shield is intended to protect the United States and its European Allies from rogue states — read Iran, now on its way to acquiring nuclear capability. And if Tehran equipped its Shehab-3 missiles with nuclear warheads, it could strike any European city within a range of about 1,300 kilometers, or 880 miles — or any city in Israel for that matter.

Vladimir, you shouldn’t fear a missile defense system,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Putin. “It is purely a defensive measure, not aimed at Russia but at true threats.” But there is also more to this “Cuban missile crisis” in reverse than meets the eye. As Mr. Cohen, an expert on Russian affairs elucidates, there’s a very important domestic component to this story.

“There is competition for Putin’s mantle for succession and by putting out signals that Russia is confronting foreign and domestic enemies, I think Putin is signaling that he’s going to support a more security-minded faction as opposed to a more economic-minded fraction.”

But Washington should not blind itself to the realities of modern Russia, one that has adopted a free market economy. Indeed, there are many hidden dangers with Mr. Bush’s missile plan: The economic factor is not the least. Ultimately, it was the Soviet Union’s inability to keep up with U.S. military spending that finally bankrupted the Soviet Union.

While the United States is involved in fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — at a cost of $811 billion to date — Washington should be careful not to fall into the very trap it set for Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.