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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2000

Mike Sigov:Putin gains from U.S. missile plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have a mediocre KGB service record. But he is no fool.

He may even be an ingenious politician.

The Russian president stands to score big in his drive to restore Russia's superpower status - at the expense of international security - during the upcoming Russian-Indian summit.

That's by continuing to capitalize on his success undermining U.S. national missile defense plans to counter the perceived missile threats from "states of concern," such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

He has artfully played this card by developing what appears to be a feasible plan to intercept missiles soon after their launch rather than in space as the U.S. proposes. The response of America's European allies to Mr. Putin's plan has been largely positive.

His first big success was earlier this month when China signed up for "strategic partnership" with Moscow to counter the U.S. policy..

This "strategic partnership" is not something to take lightly, despite Russian and Chinese claims that it's "not meant to be against anyone."

But who are they fooling? China is still a Communist dictatorship and Russia is moving toward autocracy. Such states need external enemies to justify the tyranny of their leaders.

Mr. Putin did well for himself during the recent G-8 summit on Okinawa where Germany and France expressed skepticism - bordering on opposition - about the U.S. plan.

His use of the thaw in relations between the Koreas to demonstrate North Korea's trustworthiness was brilliant. The U.S. argument that North Korea is the primary missile threat to the U.S. lost its persuasiveness.

What Mr. Putin supposedly did was negotiate a deal with North Korea. He broke the news during the G-8 summit. North Korea allegedly proposed scrapping its nuclear missile program in exchange for foreign help with rockets for space exploration.

One can only guess what kind of a deal Mr. Putin struck with Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, in Pyongyang earlier this month, but most experts agree that the offer can't be taken at face value.

Their skepticism is justified if only because those rockets could be used to deliver nuclear warheads.

Now Mr. Putin stands to extend his diplomatic success to India.

India has already announced its readiness to sign the "strategic partnership" with Russia. Not unlike China, India is a major buyer of Russian weapons. China has a territorial claim to Taiwan. India and Pakistan have an unresolved territorial dispute that periodically erupts into armed clashes.

While it's unlikely that China, Russia, or India will soon be U.S. military adversaries, each of them is gaining bargaining power against the U.S. by sticking together. .

By signing up, India would be able to get more military aid from Moscow. India is in a hurry to gain Moscow's political and military support as its rift with Pakistan escalates.

But India's "strategic alliance" with Moscow could tilt the military balance between India and Pakistan and result in a nuclear conflict. Characteristically, Pakistan's foreign ministry recently announced that it would likely use nuclear means should it be attacked, if only with conventional weapons.

And, of course, Mr. Putin's timing is perfect again. He is not a Judo Black Belt for nothing.

He knows perfectly well that the American missile defense plan is in limbo and that it could be scrapped given the recent test failure and growing skepticism by experts.

So Mr. Putin is in a hurry to capitalize on the scare.

It would take a considerable and coordinated effort on the part of the U.S. and its Western allies to counter Mr. Putin's diplomatic success and see that India gives up the idea of a "strategic partnership" with Moscow.

The deadline is October, when India and Russia are planning to hold their summit.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.



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