Sunday, June 10, 2007

The reasons behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly hostile attitude toward the Bush administration are becoming clearer. To understand them in their proper context, imagine the United States and its allies had lost the Cold War. NATO has collapsed.

Next thing we know capitalism collapses, along with America’s two political parties. In their place springs a one-party system, known as USA, which now stands for United Socialists of America.

As we lick our military, diplomatic and psychological wounds, Canada and Mexico follow our former European allies into the Warsaw Pact. France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and the Benelux countries join COMECON, the Warsaw Pact equivalent of the now defunct European Economic Community. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) folds and is replaced by INTER-ARTA (Inter-American Regulated Trade Association). Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela become charter members.

The Soviet leader — Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin or Mr. Putin — then embarks on a triumphant tour of the former NATO capitals, including Ottawa and Mexico City, now full-fledged Warsaw Pact allies.

Soviet hubris has led the world’s most powerful nation to punish a recalcitrant dictator in the Middle East, say, Iraq. The men in the Kremlin decide to invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, roping in key satellites in a coalition of the unwilling. Oblivious to local tribal and sectarian forces, Soviet and coalition forces find themselves bogged down in another Afghanistan.

When the Soviet leader first met with his new counterpart in the White House, he stared into his soul and liked what he saw: an American socialist who could be trusted. But now that the Russian imperialist was bogged down in Iraq, the USA president was beginning to enjoy his discomfiture. He then went on to criticize the Kremlin leader for the biggest blunder in the history of socialism. The Russian’s ratings plummeted to single digits.

Now back to reality. Mr. Putin is savoring President Bush’s predicament and piling on. His paranoid military had briefed him on the anti-missile system the U.S. wants to install in Poland and the Czech Republic as a deterrent to hostile nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles. From what his intelligence tells him, Iran is so far behind in producing a nuclear weapon, let alone one that can be miniaturized and fitted into the nose cone of a Shahab-4 missile, that the Americans must have an ulterior motive.

A copy of North Korea’s No-Dong 2 missile, the latest Shahab-4, or Shooting Star, would have a range of about 1,500 kilometers (900 miles), which would threaten Israel, Jordan and all the Gulf countries, but not Europe.

Mr. Putin, after listening to his military and intelligence services, decided to rattle the Europeans by snarling at Mr. Bush. This could produce a little more daylight between Washington and its European allies. Given Mr. Bush’s single-digit popularity ratings in Europe, Mr. Putin presumably concluded this is a propitious time to push the envelope with strident warnings about a new missile race, this time one the U.S. started.

At first blush it seemed like much ado about very little. The U.S. proposal to expand its missile defense shield to cover Europe entails locating 10 missile interceptors in Poland that would be linked to a new radar base in the Czech Republic. For Eastern European countries that are now NATO members, the U.S. missile plan seemed like additional guarantees against their former imperial masters in Moscow. Mr. Putin’s new Russia is now flush with the income of oil and gas exports and many Eastern Europeans sense nostalgia in Moscow for what is known as its “near abroad.”

Poland, a country that has spent more than two centuries under imperial Russian and imperial Soviet domination, is divided on the plan for a new U.S. missile base against Iran. Surveys show 58 percent of Poles and 68 percent of Czechs opposed. But the Polish government is pushing back on what they detect to be recrudescent Russian imperial ambitions.

Russian generals have spoken to Polish generals as if their NATO membership was more fiction than reality. So before they accept a U.S. missile base, Polish authorities want to make sure the U.S. supplies local air defense and anti-missile systems. Unless Polish security is enhanced vis-a-vis Russia, the government sees no point in enhancing security against Iran in the distant future and antagonizing Russia in the immediate future.

Asked by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera whether the U.S. defense shield in Eastern Europe would compel Moscow to target its own missiles at NATO locations and U.S. military sites in Europe, as during the Cold War, Mr. Putin said, “Naturally, yes.” His response was clearly designed to frighten our European allies to push back on the projected anti-missile deployment.

“If the American nuclear potential grows in European territory,” Mr. Putin told the Italian reporter, “we have to give ourselves new targets in Europe. It is up to the military to define these targets, in addition to defining the choice between ballistic and cruise missiles. But this is just a technical aspect.”

Mr. Putin’s answer was clearly designed to sow confusion in the minds of Europeans already panicked at the idea of U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. They can see the threat of a rekindled cold war and Mr. Putin is making sure the Bush administration gets the blame. Mr. Putin and his former KGB colleagues, now relocated in key government posts, are saying, in effect, “We’re back and we’re tired of being pushed around.” Chutzpah and megalomania are part of the new image as Mr. Putin declared he is now the world’s only “pure Democrat” and complained, “After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there’s nobody to talk to.”

The administration, Mr. Putin said, explains “it is necessary to defend oneself against Iranian missiles. But Iran does not have missiles with a range of 5,000-8,000 kilometers, so it’s a defense against something that does not exist. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.”

At this geostrategic moment, Russia has more geoeconomic leverage on Europe as a whole than does a much-diminished U.S. presidency. And at the G-8 summit in Germany last week, Mr. Putin raised a proposal clearly designed to split alliance ranks: Let’s build a joint system in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan (which borders Iran). “Interesting,” Mr. Bush responded and agreed experts from both sides should meet to explore cooperation on missile defense. The Europeans saw this as a brake on Washington’s plan to deploy in former Soviet satellite countries.

Mr. Bush’s eight-day European tour was choreographed to soften the with-us-or-against-us war on terror image and display the softer side of power — or “smart power” in the now fashionable geopolitical vernacular.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush will meet again July 1-2, this time in the more relaxed ocean setting of the Bush family’s Kennebunkport summer compound in Maine. This will provide an opportunity to take a fresh look into each other’s hearts and/or souls and, hopefully, stow brinkmanship.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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