Saturday, October 13, 2007

Vladimir Putin raises the stakes over missile defence

Times Online

Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes today in his poker game with George W. Bush over missile defence in eastern Europe. By threatening to tear up a key nuclear agreement, Mr Putin has challenged Mr Bush to weigh his planned missile shield against the value of relations with Russia.

His calculation is that a weakened president lacks the political capital in the United States to press ahead with the programme before his term expires next year. Russia's gamble is that a change of administration in the White House will scupper the project entirely.

Mr Putin's manouevres, meanwhile, bolster his support among ordinary Russians, who enjoy seeing their leader standing up to the West. The US knows too that, by becoming Prime Minister after leaving the presidency next March, Mr Putin will be around long after Mr Bush has retired.

It may all be an elaborate bluff by Russia's poker-faced president, but his recent actions suggest that he does what he says. He has already walked away from the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which limited concentrations of troops and tanks, as an expression of anger at US plans to site a radar station in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.

Now, in his meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, he has raised the prospect of a new nuclear arms race in Europe if the US presses ahead without Russia's consent.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is part of the framework of agreements that ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Signed in December 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, it committed the two sides to eliminate cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres (300 to 3,400 miles).

By 1991, the US had destroyed 846 missiles and the Soviet Union 1,846, including the SS-20 whose deployment in Communist-controlled eastern Europe prompted the siting of US cruise missiles in Britain. This sparked the mass CND protest movement of the 1980s and the establishment of the women's peace camp at Greenham Common.

Eastern Europe has changed sides in the intervening years but is the focus of friction between Russia and the West once again. The US says that the missile shield is a safeguard against the risk of surprise attack by rogue states such as Iran.

The Kremlin insists that the plan threatens Russia's security and represents an attempt by the US to tip the balance of nuclear deterrence in its favour, something Dr Rice described as "ludicrous" in April.

Mr Putin's declaration that the INF treaty should become a global agreement was a clever stalling tactic because he knows that it would take years, if ever, to achieve such a deal. By making it a condition of Moscow's future adherence to the treaty, he presents Washington with a stark choice.

It can press on with missile defence, leading Russia to abandon the INF treaty and heap international blame on Mr Bush. Or it can seek to include Russia, allowing Moscow to entangle the initiative in negotiations until Mr Bush runs out of time.

"We are counting on you not to force your previous agreements with eastern European countries during our complex negotiations," Mr Putin told Dr Rice and Mr Gates......

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