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Kees Homan: Putin is testing Western resolve

Here’s a new think tank analysis from Maj. Gen. (ret.) Kees Homan MA, LL.M of the Clingendael Security and Conflict Programme:

Putin is testing Western resolve It seems as if, quite suddenly, arms control is back on the international political agenda, as U.S. and Russian leaders are clashing over conventional forces, missile defences, nuclear forces, and missiles in Europe. Russia has threatened that it might suspend the implementation of the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which caps the amount of tanks and other major weaponry deployed in Europe. Moscow is frustrated that NATO member states refuse to ratify a 1999 revision of the accords because Russian military forces remain in Georgia and Moldova. However, as a result the blocked Treaty cannot be reviewed and updated to deal with the impact of the latest security challenges to force levels, missions, activities, technologies and equipment.

In the field of nuclear forces, excessive u.s. and Russian nuclear forces continue to drive defence planning and distrust on both sides. Meanwhile, the landmark 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is scheduled to expire on 5 December 2009. Russia wants another nuclear reduction treaty to succeed Start, but the Bush administration opposes that approach.But, most of all, Russian leaders have bristled at the U.S.. plan to base antimissile systems in Europe, close to their border. European countries are divided over this recent U.S. initiative to begin negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic on components of a u.s. anti-missile system on their territories. Washington has proposed building a radar for the system district in the Czech Republic and a site for 10 missile interceptors near Koszalin, Poland, to counter a potential threat from Iranian missiles aimed at the U.S. East Coast and parts of Europe.Once fully implemented, the U.S. missi1e defence system would protect U.S. territory and most – but not all – of Europe from missile threats, including from Iran and North Korea. Russia asserts that such weapons are not aimed at an emerging Iranian missile threat as claimed, but at Russia.The technical problem, which is the issue of most concern to the U.S., is overshadowed by at least three sets of political issues: the reactions of Russia, the different attitudes of European countries and relations with NATO. It is hardly surprising that Russia pretends that it is feeling surrounded, first by NATO enlargement, then by Western pressure on Georgia and the Ukraine and now by this anti-missile system deployed almost on its doorstep. On the other hand, in comparison with the Russian missile arsenal, the antimissile defence system is of au inoffensive nature. The Russian arsenal, albeit not so vast as in the past, is still capable of at least of saturating the new U.S.. defences in Europe.The loud protests by Russian officials are somewhat surprising since the U.S. plans have been openly discussed in Washington for years. They have also been the subject of consultations within both lie NATO-Russia Council and bilateral discussions. Russian objections that these plans would ‘upset the strategic balance’ are not credible. It is hard to see why the siting of a few interceptor missiles in Poland and a few radar installations on Czech territory – as part of the us missile defence shield – threatens Russia. No interceptor can chase a hostile missile, and Ground Based Interceptors (GBI) in Eastern Europe are far from any Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) field and thus in no position to intercept them on their way over the North Pole. Similarly, they would be useless against short-range missiles fired from Western Russia or Kaliningrad at targets in Western Europe as these can stay within the atmosphere and thus remain outside the engagement zone of the GBI.The Russian protests are thus only explicable in the wider context of relations between Russia and the West, which are currently under stress for a variety of reasons . In particular, they fit a pattern of Russian behaviour in recent years that puts pressure on small Eastern European countries while trying to divide major Western European countries from their transatlantic partner and constraining u.s. global influence. Agreeing to cooperate with Russia on its terms would re-establish Central Europe as Russia’s sphere of influence. This gives rise 10 severe doubts that Russian objections could be addressed on their own merits.On the political front, a divided Europe, with strong currents of anti-U.S. hostility, plays into Russia’ s hands. Western governments continue to fear that the cumulative effect of the mentioned disputes could result in a resumption of the Cold War, a confrontation which will not be ideological in nature but, nevertheless, can become just as intractable. So it will not be Moscow’s reactions – which are mostly a front – that influence u.s. decisions, but those of the European countries. Though hindered by internal opposition, authorization should be forthcoming from Poland to deploy the interceptors and from the Czech Republic to install the radar equipment required for the anti-missile system.As a matter of fact, after the recent meeting of NATO defence ministers, the chances of a result-oriented transatlantic dialogue developing seem to have improved. A study of the political and military implications of the u.s. plans for the Alliance is to be finished by February 2008, and NATO officials have hinted at a decision on a system to defend Alliance territory at the next summit in Bucharest in 2008.President Putin may threaten to cut off supplies of energy to Europe, yet he knows that this cannot be done for years. Europe remains Russia’s biggest and most lucrative market. Europe is not devoid of options. It needs to make it clear that it will not tolerate any attempts to split the EU between ‘old’ and ‘new’ members. The West also needs to make it clear to Moscow that the status quo established at the end of the Cold War cannot be overturned.