American plans for missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic might be a threat to Russian self-esteem (after Russia itself made an issue of them) but they represented no conceivable threat to Russia itself. Reports that the Obama administration is considering abandoning these plans are therefore worrying — unless it can be shown (and perhaps it can) (1) that the alternatives offer the same (or better) defense for all the parties concerned and (2) that the driving force behind this change is not some naïve desire to mollify Moscow.
There will always be some pushing and shoving between great powers — and that’s okay. It does not necessarily make them enemies. Understanding that fact is key to understanding how the U.S. should deal with Russia. Russia is a rival, could be a friend (albeit almost certainly a difficult one — think France) and is not yet an enemy. Seen in this light, ratcheting up a war of words (as did both vice presidents Biden and Cheney on different occasions) is often counter-productive, regardless of the accuracy of what was said. Even less helpful are military/strategic gestures (admitting Georgia to NATO right now, for example) that are either militarily unsustainable or, seen in the light of America’s long-term strategic interests, not worth it.
However, that is not the same as saying that the U.S. should always be the one that is shoved. Sometimes this country has to push back, and failure to do so will be read by the Kremlin in a way that will ultimately be far more damaging to Washington’s relations with Moscow than any short-term spat. There’s certainly no need to rub Russia’s nose in the fact that Poland and the Czech Republic are full members of NATO, but at the same time it has to be made clear to the Kremlin that these two sovereign nations are, no less than Russia itself, fully entitled to participate in arrangements for their own defense. Changing the missile plans could well send exactly the opposite message.