And You Thought the Cold War Was Gone For Good?

The current brouhaha over a U.S. plan to deploy anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) in Poland has nothing to do with a fear that Iran will attack Europe or the U.S. with nuclear tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). It has a great deal to do with the Bush Administration’s efforts to neutralize Russia’s and China’s nuclear deterrents and edge both countries out of Central Asia.

The plan calls for deploying 10 ABMs in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, supposedly to interdict missiles from “rogue states”—read North Korean and Iran.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security John Rood claims “North Korea possesses an ICBM range missile,” and it is “certainly possible” that Pyongyang could sell some to Iran. Barring that, Tehran could build its own missile capable of striking Europe and the United States.

But the North Korean Taepodong-2, which failed a recent test, is not a true ICBM—in a pinch it might reach Alaska. And Iran pledged in 2003 not to upgrade its intermediate missile, the Shihab-3.

“Since there aren’t, and won’t be, any ICBMs [from North Korea and Iran], then against whom, against whom, is this system directed?” First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said last month, “Only against us.”

The Chief of the Russian General Staff added, “The real goal [of the U.S. deployment] is to protect [the U.S.] from Russian and Chinese nuclear-missile potential and to create exclusive conditions for the invulnerability of the United States.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded that “The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet [sic] strategic return is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it.”

But once you start adding up a number of other things, it isn’t just 10 missiles and a radar site. There is already a similar site in Norway, and the plan is to put similar systems in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Britain is considering deploying ABM missiles at Fylingdales, which even the U.S. admits would pose a threat to Russian missiles.

“If the [Russians] are concerned about the U.S. targeting their intercontinental ballistic missiles, I think that would be problematic from the UK because I believe we probably could catch them from a UK launch site,” says U.S. Lieutenant General Trey Obering, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

An editorial in the Guardian called the Fylingdales plan “the far side of folly.”

The Russians are also suspicious that the Polish missiles are the camel’s nose under the tent.

Poland has made it clear that it doesn’t feel threatened by Iran. For Warsaw, this is all about its traditional enemy to the East, Russia. Besides the ABM missiles, Poland is pressing Washington for Patriot missiles and high altitude THAAD missiles, plus it is purchasing American F-16s. In response, the Russians have moved surface-to-air missiles into Belarus.

“It would be naïve to think that Washington would limit its appetite to Poland or the Czech Republic, or to the modest potential that it is now talking about,” writes Viktor Litovkin of Russia’s Independent Military Review.

All these systems will be tied into ABM systems in Alaska and California, plus similar planned systems in Japan, Australia and the Philippines (not to mention sea-borne ABM systems in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean).

Keep in mind that the Russians and the Chinese are already at loggerheads with the Bush administration over its unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Total all those things up, and toss in the recent decision by the Bush administration to start designing another generation of nuclear warheads, and it is no wonder the Russians have turned cranky.

The European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have — with reservations — gone along with the plan, in part because the EU would like to squeeze Russian control over gas and oil pipelines coming out of Central Asia.

According to K.M. Bhadrakumar, the former Indian ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey, the United States has financed a pipeline that runs natural gas from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan through Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. The pipeline will be “a rival to Russian Gazprom’s Blue Stream-2,” scheduled to open in 2012.

“Moscow is well aware that Washington is the driving spirit behind the EU’s energy policy toward Central Asia,” Bhadrakumar writes in the Asia Times, arguing that the U.S. “calculates that Moscow will be inexorably drawn into a standoff with the EU over the latter’s increasingly proactive polices in Eurasia.”

While Rice may suggest that “everyone” thinks Russian paranoia is “ludicrous,” in fact the EU is split over the missiles, and unhappy that Washington bypassed NATO to make bilateral agreements with both countries.

Neither the rightwing Polish government nor the center-right Czech governments dare put the issue up for a referendum. Sentiment in the Czech Republic is running 60-40 against the radar, and there is strong opposition to the missiles in Poland.

The German Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the current coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel, also oppose it. “We do not need new rockets in Europe,” says SPD chair Kurt Beck. “The SPD doesn’t want a new arms race between the U.S. and Russia on European soil. We have enough problems in the world.”

French President Jacques Chirac also warned, “We should be very careful about encouraging the creation of a new dividing lines in Europe or a return to the old order.”

The Russians have threatened to withdraw from the European Conventional Forces Treaty, and have even hinted they might reconsider their participation in the 1987 Intermediate Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia is also making plans to quadruple its production of new ballistic missiles and add to its nuclear submarine fleet.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute researcher Shannon Kile says the Russians view the deployment “as a violation of the original NATO enlargement agreement,” where the U.S. pledged it would not permanently deploy or station “military assets on the territories of former Warsaw pact countries.”

Last month, the White House urged admitting Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Macedonia, and Ukraine to NATO.

Implicit in Rice’s “ludicrous” comment is that an ABM system would be incapable of stopping a full-scale nuclear attack by a major nuclear power, and not a few critics point out that the system has a dismal track record. Kile characterized the proposed ABM as “A system that won’t work to fight a threat that does not exist.”

But it doesn’t have to work very well. ABM systems have a dark secret: They are not supposed to stop all-out missile attacks, just mop up the few retaliatory enemy missiles that manage to survive a first strike. First strikes—called “counterpoint” attacks in bloodless vocabulary of nuclear war—are a central component in U.S. nuclear doctrine.

Last week the Democrats blocked funds for the European ABM system. Robert Wexler (D-Fl), chair of the House subcommittee on Europe, said, “Europeans also question why — if this program is really intended to protect Europe — did the administration choose to bilaterally negotiate with Poland and the Czech Republic rather than collectively decide this issue in NATO?”

But whether the Democrats will stand up to the White House is anyone’s guess.

If you are sitting in Moscow or Beijing and adding up the ABMs, the new warheads, and the growing ring of bases on your borders, you have little choice but to react. Imagine the U.S. response if the Russians and the Chinese were to deploy similar systems in Canada, Mexico, and Cuba.

A nuclear arms race, an increase of tension in Europe, and the launching of a new Cold War: that is what is at stake in the European missile crisis.

Conn Hallinan is a foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.