The Russians have their collective knickers in a bunch, expressing "concern" over U.S. plans to base anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow claims the planned deployment represents a "clear threat" to its interests, despite reassurances from Washington, Prague and Warsaw.
We've written about the U.S. plan at length, most recently in May of last year. It calls for installing ballistic missile warning radars in the Czech Republic, and the basing of up to 10 interceptor missiles, most likely in Poland. Total cost for the project is estimated at $1.6 billion, and there are no assurances that the missile defenses will actually reach operational status. Our embassies in Prague and Warsaw emphasize that negotiations on the missile defense issue are on-going, with no guarantee that the Poles and Czechs will ultimately approve the plan.
On the other hand, Moscow's neighbors in eastern European neighbors have long memories of the Soviet-era occupation of their countries, and they would probably welcome added protection against future attacks by the Russians. But the Poles and Czechs (not to mention the Hungarians, Slovaks, Bulgarians and Germans) are also realistic; they understand that a single radar and a few interceptor missiles would provide only modest protection from a Russian missile attack.
But they also understand that the proposed deployment is primarily aimed at at deterring a limited missile attack by a rogue state, most likely Iran. Tehran recently acquired the BM-25 intermediate range missile system from North Korea; in its current form, the BM-25 is already capable of hitting targets in southeastern Europe. With further upgrades, the system may be able to hit much of western Europe within the next decade. Against this type of threat, the proposed deployment would offer genuine deterrence and protection.
So why the fuss from Moscow, over a deployment that offers no real to Russia or its military forces? From the Russian perspective, the proposed missile defense shield represents a further erosion of influence in an area they once controlled. Over the past decade, the former Warsaw Pact has essentially become NATO East, making the Russians feel further isolated and threatened. Stalin would be spinning in his grave if he knew that his "sphere of influence" in eastern Europe now looks to Washington, rather than Moscow, for trade and protection.
On a more practical level, Moscow is also upset at the prospect of another high-powered radar near its frontiers, giving the west additional capabilities in monitoring Russian ballistic missile activity. The proposed radar in Czechosolvakia will provide even more coverage of the Russian land mass, including regions where missiles are deployed and tested. The Czech radar could become even more important if Moscow fields its hypersonic glide vehicle, launched from a land-based ICBM, and designed to evade "traditional" ballistic missile radars (read: those based farther away from Russian territory). Operating closer to the Russian border, the Czech-based radar could improve chances of detecting a HGV launch, although interceptor missiles would still be hard-pressed to engage a hypersonce vehicle, flying into allied airspace on a shallow trajectory.
While the defensive deployment isn't much of a military threat to Russia, it is enough to put Moscow into diplomatic overdrive; over the next few months, the Russians will redouble their efforts to convince the Poles and Czechs to reject the proposed missile defenses. It is worth noting that the Russians have other options at their disposal. They will likely respond to any BMD deployment in eastern Europe by continuing their research on HGV weapons, and placing additional decoys on their medium and intercontinental-range missiles.
But the best option in this matter is the onle Moscow is most likely to reject, namely accepting a U.S. invitation to be a part of a regional missile defense shield. Whether or note Vladimir Putin cares to admit it, the threat he is helping create in Tehran will ultimately be aimed at Russia as well. Oh, wait a minute...that's right, Russia already has a missile defense system, based around Moscow, and it's been operational for years. How are the deployments proposed for Poland and Hungary destablizing when Russia's limited ABM network isn't? The short answer is: they're not. Russia's opposition to the BMD deployment is just another example of post-Cold War hypocrisy.