The Corner

Adding Fuel to the Russian Fire

President Obama’s decision not to deploy an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic is intended to improve U.S.–Russian relations. In fact, it will make them worse.

The missiles were never a threat to Russia. This has been acknowledged by Russia’s own experts. Russia’s ICBM force is designed to attack the U.S. over the North Pole and the missiles intended for deployment in Poland are too slow to catch them and designed for a totally different purpose. The constant anti-western propaganda around this issue was referred to in the Soviet Union as “information for fools.” It served to consolidate the support of the population around a corrupt leadership by directing its frustrations against an external foe.

Russia opposed the missile deployment for a completely different reason. Had they been deployed on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact they would have demonstrated that this region was once and for all part of the defense architecture of the West. By using propaganda to induce Obama to back down, Russia has divided the NATO alliance into those countries where Russia has a veto over deployments and those where it does not with serious negative implications for the cohesion of the West.

The Obama administration undoubtedly hopes that the next step will be Russian cooperation over Iran. But having achieved a major strategic victory at no cost, the Russians are not likely to take steps that would alienate the Iranians and strengthen the West. Support for Iran gives Russia weight in international politics because, in the absence of any willingness on the part of the West to penalize Russia, it compels worried Western countries constantly to court the Kremlin. At the same time, a corrupt and criminalized regime whose stability depends on the price of oil may actually welcome tension in the Middle East capable of raising oil prices to stratospheric levels.

Officials in Washington have insisted that the decision to cancel the missile deployment was dictated by a new understanding of the threat posed by Iran. This is not the way it is being seen in Russia where officials are delighted by the demonstration of Russian strength which they think it represents. Russian news agencies recently reported that Russia will detain Georgian ships off Abkhazia in legally recognized Georgian territorial waters. As Russian “strength” becomes more self confident we can expect more such reactions to Russian success in the months ahead.

— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.

David Satter has written four books about Russia, including, most recently, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, now available in paperback. He is the only American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.