In a Stratfor analysis piece, George Friedman discusses the symbolic importance of the missile shield trumping the actual security aspect, and argues that Russia may see more geopolitical benefit in provoking a second Kosovo crisis (see excerpts below). Friedman’s approach reminds me of the old KGB maxim which Bret Stephens of the WSJ wrote about back in March: first create problems, and then offer to be part of the solution.
The Poles, given their long history, are not a trustful or secure people. They view the Russians as merely recovering from a setback, not permanently vanquished. They also have no love or trust for the Germans. Historically trapped on the hard-to-defend northern European plain, equally afraid of both Russians and Germans, the Poles have always looked to an outside power as a protector. Even the experience of French and British guarantees in World War II has not soured them on this strategy, since it is the only one they’ve got. And that means the Poles now are relying on American guarantees. But the Poles also badly need a buffer between them and the Russians. They want independent Baltic states in NATO. They want Ukraine in NATO. If there was any way to swing it, they would want Belarus in NATO. They want the Russians kept as far from them as possible. So long as they feel they have U.S. guarantees, they will do everything they can to create blocks to a return of Russia to the frontiers of the FSU. The Russian view is that the Poles are being encouraged and emboldened by the United States. The missile defense system in Poland is not important in and of itself. It certainly doesn’t affect Russia’s ability to launch a nuclear strike. But as a symbol of a Polish-U.S. alliance that transcends NATO, it is absolutely vital. The Poles wanted the missiles in their country to symbolize the link, and the Americans wanted them there for the same reason. As long as that link exists, the Poles feel secure, and as long as the Poles feel secure, they will be a thorn in the side of the Russians. The Russian goal of exerting a sphere of influence in the FSU has a broader component. Russia does not expect to regain influence in most of Central Europe — Serbia possibly excepted. It does want the Central Europeans to be sufficiently wary of the Russians as to exercise caution. Most of the rest of Central Europe tries hard not to get in Russia’s way. The Russians want to solidify this posture and extend it to Poland while they redefine the status of the Baltics. … There is also, as in all good Cold War games, a domestic political component. The United States has enjoyed meddling in Russian politics for the past 15 years or so. This gives Putin a chance at payback. At a time when the Bush administration is both politically weak and quite distracted, painting the administration as being inflexible and aggressive, courting another ill-conceived confrontation over a weapon that doesn’t work anyway, is a low-risk, high-gain proposition. The New York Times already bit on the bait with an editorial praising Russian flexibility. The administration’s geopolitical problem is obvious. It has too many irons in the fire and a couple of them — Iraq and Afghanistan — are white hot. The Russians are deliberately raising the stakes over the Polish system because they see the Bush administration’s last two years as a golden opportunity to redefine their sphere of influence. If the United States resists Russia’s suggestions, Russia can make inroads in Germany and the rest of Western Europe while causing more domestic political pressure on an administration that already is in the red zone when it comes to political weakness. If Washington compromises, the Russians can use that in Central Europe as evidence of the United States’ lack of commitment and of a need for the Central Europeans to rethink their position. It particularly puts the Baltic states in a difficult position. Poland alone (or with the tiny Baltic states) certainly is not a sufficient counterweight to Russia. Putin’s move, therefore, was brilliantly timed and conceived. He took an issue that is controversial in its own right and used it as a geopolitical lever, striking hard at a relationship that is most troubling to Moscow. The Washington-Warsaw relationship represents a serious regional challenge to Russian ambitions. If the Russians can get an American retreat on the anti-missile system in Poland, they can begin the process of unraveling the U.S. position in Central Europe. Since the Western Europeans wouldn’t mind in the least, there are possibilities here. But the possibilities are not the same ones that existed during the Cold War, or even as recently as three years ago. Any region with three dozen states — read: Europe — is a dynamic place where governments regularly come and go. By the end of June, the three major European leaders who demonstrated the greatest affinity for Russia during their terms — German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair — will all be gone. Their replacements, and the replacements of similar governments throughout Europe, are largely Russo-skeptic. But they also are not instinctual European federalists. This both destroys and creates opportunities for Moscow. The Kremlin is now facing a Europe that is actually more hostile to it than a similar pan-European alignment of the 1980s. Simultaneously, the unraveling of the European project means that, though the overall region is certainly more suspicious, Russia’s ability to peel off individual states from the whole, either with sweet talk or intimidation, could actually prove easier. And nowhere will it be easier than Serbia. The Russians have made it clear that they do not favor an independent Kosovo. Friendly with Serbia, and very unhappy with the way the Kosovo war was handled by the United States, the Russians could well choose to create a second confrontation over the future of Kosovo, testing both the Americans and Western Europeans at the same time. The Russians now have very little to lose and quite a bit to gain from confrontation.