Sunday, March 16, 2008

Edward Lucas’ best-selling book, “The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West” (2008) seems to have come out of a time warp. Haven’t we heard it all before, a quarter-century ago? Didn’t Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin change it all? They did not. It is fast forward into the past.

On the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia has built a new port for nuclear submarines. The first of the eight planned submarines, Yuri Dolgoruky (Dolgoruky was the legendary founder of the city of Moscow), was completed in 2007. The next two also have symbolic names: Vladimir Monomakh (12th-century ruler of Ukraine) and Alexander Nevsky (fought the Catholic West in the 13th century). By 2017, all submarines will be operational. Each will have 12 ballistic missiles of the Bulava type and 10 nuclear warheads per missile. Their range is 5,000 miles.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan placed Pershing missiles in West Germany to protect Europe from a possible Soviet invasion. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were stationed in Western Europe for that purpose.

If Ronald Reagan were president today, he would place a shield against Russian missiles in Poland, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These are the pieces of Europe Soviet Russia disgorged as it went through the convulsions of changing its economic system.

“New Europe” is now part of the European Union. It has become its eastern flank. It protects Western Europe from a possible new bout of Russian belligerence (and Mr. Lucas says such a bout is within the realm of possibility).

President Bush wants to do something similar to increase U.S. and European security. He wants to place interceptor missiles in Poland and the radar shield in the Czech Republic.

Russia now has advantages it did not have in Soviet times. Its gas and oil are needed by the European Union. Eventually, Russia will be in a position to dictate conditions for delivery of energy to those states with whom it signs bilateral treaties (and it is in a hurry to do so). One of the long-term goals of Russian policy has been to decouple the United States and Europe. The more EU relies on Russian energy supply, the less reliable it becomes as an ally of the United States.

Therefore, maintaining cordial relations with “New Europe” remains important. The EU’s new members are more eager to preserve links with America than “Old Europe.”

So far, the relations between “New Europe” and America have been cordial. Poland cheerfully sent several thousand soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan and remains one of the few countries still counting themselves members of the “coalition of the willing.”

But Poland is vulnerable. If American missiles are placed in Poland, the country will face an increased possibility of Russian nuclear and economic retaliation. The recent decrease in gas deliveries to Ukraine was a trial run for such a retaliation. “New Europe” cannot afford being choked off in this way. Poland cannot agree to accommodate the United States without getting something in return.

In this connection, the March 10 visit to Washington of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk stands out as a missed opportunity. Mr. Tusk did not come hat-in-hand. He wanted a trade. In exchange for Poland’s consent to house and maintain missile interceptors as part of the American security system, Tusk wanted U.S. assistance in modernizing the Polish army. He wanted an arrangement comparable to one Pakistan has with the United States.

Promises have been made, but Mr. Tusk went home empty-handed. America is not in the mood to distribute its largess, what with the mortgage crisis and the war in the Middle East. But by comparison, the money needed to secure Europe’s eastern flank would be a fraction of 1 percent of what has already been spent on Iraq.

In 2006, the United States spent $698 million on military aid to Pakistan. In this situation, to tell the Poles that the decision about a possible deal will come in six months (as Mr. Tusk was told), or try to redirect negotiations toward the problem of visa-free travel to the United States, amounts to a stalling tactic. Six months to decide whether to provide a pittance?

Notwithstanding Prime Minister Tusk’s and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski’s attempt to put a happy face on the fiasco of the Tusk visit, the mood in Poland is not to altruistically participate in the defense of those who are more powerful than Poland.

Poles begin to see that generosity toward America would expose Poland to Russia’s wrath and bring little in return except promises, smiles and handshakes. Poland took smiles and handshakes, and even written promises, from England and France before World War II. They were not worth the paper on which they were written.

If he wants the deal done, President Bush ought to meet the Poles’ modest demands and chalk this issue up as one of the few achievements of his presidency.


Research professor of Slavic studies at Rice University and editor of the Sarmatian Review.

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