In response to mounting unhappiness in the West with Russia’s acquisition of Crimea and plans to split Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has struck again. The Russian Defense Ministry released a statement over the weekend saying, “The unfounded threats… are seen by us as an unfriendly gesture,” raising the possibility of “new circumstances, giving Russia the right to pull out of the inspections” required under the START treaty with the U.S.
Now that is an “unfriendly gesture,” and one that leaves the Obama administration in a bind — unless it wants to adjust its thinking and right a six-year-old wrong.
In 2009, one of Putin’s first challenges related to the new American administration was to have President Obama reverse President Bush’s decision to locate ballistic missile defense radars in Poland and the Czech Republic. Putin certainly knew they posed no threat to Russia, but he didn’t want American soldiers to accompany the radars into former Warsaw Pact countries. He might have thought his task would be difficult because the two new Western allies had voted to approve the installation only after long and acrimonious debate in their newly-democratic Parliaments.
But it didn’t take long. By September, President Obama had unceremoniously pulled the plug, announcing both the “reset” with Russia and cancellation of the radar sites. The president’s justification was that Iran’s missile program wasn’t as advanced as first thought, and so the radars were less urgent. But he added this sop to Russian nuclear capabilities in his visit to the New Economic School in Moscow, “The notion that… we can protect ourselves by picking and choosing which nations can have [nuclear weapons], is illusory. That is why America is committed to stopping nuclear proliferation, and ultimately seeking a world without nuclear weapons.”
Not defending ourselves and our allies from nuclear weapons, but eliminating them. America’s commitment to a pipe dream that relied on the choices made by America’s adversaries made the Russians happy, but dismayed Poland and the Czech Republic. Iran for them was a sideshow. The main threat was the possibility of Russian overtures to restore its empire at the expense of countries that had paid the price of post-war occupation.
The president waved aside European concerns and his predecessor’s commitments. But now that Central Europe’s concern about Russian resurgence looks prescient and closer to reality than President Obama’s belief in cooperation with Putin, it is time to reinstate the decision to install the missile defense radars. Not because Russia is likely to nuke Poland, but because Poland and others need to be convinced that their defense is our priority.
President Obama, however, appears to have a deep, fundamental and essential aversion to missile defense; ours or anyone else’s. Why? Defense is far less morally ambiguous than offense — missile or otherwise. With Putin threatening increases in offense (why else would he pull out of the inspection regime?) protecting Americans and our friends would seem an obvious choice.
When the administration was un-planning the radar deployment in Central Europe, Vice President Biden tried to soften the blow, saying the administration was indeed dedicated to missile defense, but only those defenses that were “proven and cost effective.” I wrote at the time, “Since one hopes they will never be used, proving that they work to the satisfaction of people who don’t believe in the principle, and proving they would be more cost effective than rebuilding countries after a missile attack are both unrealistic.”
That was 2009; we know so much more now. The concentration of Israeli brainpower and American funds on the problem of increasingly sophisticated missiles from Gaza yielded Iron Dome — a system that not only tracks and hits incoming rockets and missiles, but differentiates spatially between those that will hit populated areas and those that will fall outside the boundaries of major population centers. Iron Dome hit 85% of its targets in Operation Pillar of Fire in 2012; that is, it hit 85% of the rockets that would have caused substantial damage and death. That makes it proven. Considering the financial cost of replacing physical property, the political cost of restoring confidence in a government that has failed to protect its citizens, and the utter impossibility of restoring human lives lost, Iron Dome can be called cost effective as well.
Militarily and politically Russia isn’t Hamas. Nor is it North Korea, but pulling out of treaty inspections cuts the distance between them.
Geography, history, and Imperial Russia being what they are, Putin’s hold on Crimea is unlikely to be released — a setback for Russians of Ukrainian descent as well as for Europe and the rest of the Free World. Declining defense budgets and increasing public isolationism in the U.S. make it almost inconceivable that the United States will undertake military action to roll back the occupation — and rightly so. The UN, bound by a Russian veto, has proven itself useless once again.
But it is possible for the West to demonstrate that it will not allow the Russia the freedom to trample its former colonies.
Restoration of plans for ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, coupled with advancing plans for wrapping the missile defense cloak around countries that want and need to be bound to NATO and the West will reassure the relatively-recently freed “captive nations” that they will not fall back under Russian hegemony. It is within America’s reach to provide that reassurance with no need for war or the United Nations, and at the same time, shore up our own defenses against those who seek to do us ill.