Bringing a shield to a missile fight?

A lot has been said about Bush’s proposed missile shield to be deployed in Europe, the early-warning radar system to be placed in Eastern Europe, and Putin’s reaction to it. But quite a lot has been left unsaid.

Official American statements call the missile defense system a precaution against “rogue states”. The Kremlin officially regards it as a threat to Russia’s security and to the delicate balance of terror established during the Cold War. Despite the Bush administration’s best efforts to reassure him, Putin has announced he is aiming missiles at Europe — supposedly deactivated or redeployed since the end of the Cold War — , buliding up his own air-defense system – so far unexplained – and withdrawing from the CFE (Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe). So, how much of that is justified, how much is overreaction and how much is Putin’s way of cashing in on Bush’s missteps? Our answer will be more inclined to the latter. Here’s why.

First of all, the “delicate” balance of terror is not that delicate. In fact, the balance of terror is quite sturdy, and has proven to be so in the past half century. It has stood firm, despite repeated blows delivered throughout the years, ranging from the Berlin (1948-49, 1958-61, 1963) and Cuban (1962) crises; the emergence of new nuclear states (Britain 1952, France 1960, China 1964, India 1974 and Pakistan 1998); revolutions in warhead delivery and concealment capabilites (e.g.: the introduction of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles – SLBMs – and Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles – MIRVs); the break-up of the USSR (and the dangers that ensued, in terms of misplaced weapons and “abandoned” silos and nuclear facilities); and, last but not least, the first attempts towards the deployment of ABM systems. To those we can add the several other situations in wich nuclear powers came to the brink of conflict or even engaged in limited direct (Chinese and US fighter jets in Vietnam) or indirect (US/UN troops and Soviet-backed North-Koreans in Korea) confrontation. Throughout all these tense moments in our recent past, the balance of terror has not only stood unshaken, but one can say with great certainty that the shadow of thermonuclear war contributed massively to the non-escalation of the above mentioned crises.

Second, ABMs (Anti-Ballistic Missiles) pose no real threat to the array of forces in place in Europe, or to Russian security writ large. That is so mainly for the following reason: ABMs don’t work. At least not the way most people think, or the way the Bush administration would like us to think. ABMs are not meant to protect large, obvious targets like countries or even cities. They are meant to protect “hard” targets (as opposed to cities, which are “soft” targets), like underground silos and launchpads. When used to secure large areas, ABMs can be easily countered by a simple addition of deceptive measures or an increase in numbers of vehicles (individual missiles or warheads in MIRVs), both easily attainable for Russia and China (and even Pakistan!), thus proving itself a big waste of time and money. When used to safeguard silos, ABMs guarantee the safety of the deterrent forces reinforcing second-strike capability, and are thus a stabilizing factor, not the other way around.

It was mainly for these two reasons that President Putin was not the least worried and was in fact quite understanding when President Bush first approached him regarding the setup of a missile shield in 2001 and later withdrew from the ABM Treaty (a treaty signed in 1972 limiting the deployment of ABMs).

What changed? Why is Putin now bent on putting and end to American missile shield intentions? The answer is short: He’s not. What Putin really wants is to safeguard the Russian sphere of influence. That means keeping the US as far away as possible from Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine and Bielorussia (pipeline countries), halting NATO enlargement and pressing the US on the Caucasus (Georgia, Chechnya and the likes). The American proposal to install bases in Poland and the Czech Republic just gave him a perfect excuse to press the US and still leave some ambiguity as to the burden of the initiation of hostilities.

As a bonus, Putin can hope to succeed in gathering support at home (with his “””””constituency”””””) and among his peers at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russian intentions in the latter should not be misread either. The Russians are just as scared of the Chinese military program and the Iranian bomb as are the hawks in the Pentagon, or even more so. They just found a better way to cope with it. “Keep your friends close”, goes the saying.

Cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher

* Postado originalmente por Dani Nedal na versão (local) anterior deste blog, no dia 20/08/2007.

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