Over Russian objections, President Bush has turned his attention to one of his campaign promises - the development of the Star Wars missile defense plan.
This causes uncertainty and tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
Should we be afraid?
Maybe not now, but in the future, watch out.
The United States may be the world's dominant military power, but it may be losing the public relations battle on this front.
Just as Russia was the international bad guy during the Cold War, the United States may be tarnishing its image now. And this is a potential national security threat in itself.
Mr. Bush made his case for a national missile defense system and called for Moscow to participate in jointly finding a way around the 1972 missile defense treaty between the countries.
Moscow argues that a treaty is just that. Washington maintains that the treaty is outdated, and the shield is meant to protect the United States from a limited nuclear strike by a rogue nation.
The Kremlin had indicated that it's ready for all kinds of “adequate” responses, including plans to re-equip thousands of its ballistic missiles with multiple-targeted warheads and decoys to penetrate any defense system.
Pro-Kremlin analysts in Russia even talk about Russia assisting China, Iran, Iraq, and Libya in the development of advanced missile and nuclear technology.
But in reality the Kremlin has been careful enough to limit its military exports to conventional weapons. The same goes for technology, with a few exceptions in the past when the perpetrators were individual Russian research centers that were subsequently sanctioned by the United States.
I would argue that Moscow's threats are empty and its opposition to the plan is essentially fake and meant foremost for its home audience.
No wonder President Putin told reporters in the Kremlin recently that President Bush's speech is a good basis for talks on international security. Mr. Bush's speech, however, was clearly a unilateral statement of purpose to go ahead with the national missile defense plan that Russia is in no position to block.
First, Russia's 5,000 to 6,000 nuclear missiles are pushing their life-expectancy limit and will be unusable within a decade, except for several dozen new ones that the U.S. military may well be able to intercept should the shield be built by then. Even experts in Russia admit that.
Second, Russian leaders have enough self-preservation instincts not to provide rogue nations with nuclear missiles, especially while Russia's busy fighting Muslim fundamentalists in Chechnya.
Third, the Russians have never been suicidal enough even during the Cold War to use the nuclear weapons, knowing full well the United States has the capacity to annihilate Russia even if Moscow struck first.
The prospect of mutual destruction is still a deterrent to the use of nuclear arms - period.
Moreover, even a unilateral nuclear strike massive enough to knock out the opposing party's nukes would be environmental suicide for its perpetrator, as the Russians - who helped develop the theory of a so-called “nuclear winter” - are fully aware.
But most important, the Kremlin really doesn't mind if Washington goes ahead with implementing the missile defense plan.
President Putin is no fool and understands that Washington is not a threat to Russia.
Mr. Putin could always use propaganda, of course, to get re-elected when his term expires in three years, for example, or to usurp the power should that fail.
He would need a justification for that - not for the bureaucrats who would support him anyway in order to keep their jobs - but for the general populace. An image of the United States as an external “enemy,” the more powerful the better, would suit the Kremlin just fine.
It's not a hard sell, especially to the Russians, given wide opposition to the plan by many experts in Europe, Russia, China, and even in the United States.
These experts are warning that implementing the plan could increase nuclear proliferation as individual countries perceive it as a unilateral violation of the missile defense treaty and in turn feel free to violate the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
So unlike Russia's threats of retaliation, the threat from rogue states may be increasingly real. Besides, Mr. Putin's successors may not be that levelheaded and may be quicker to the trigger.
Let's hope that the missile defense plan works not only to boost high-tech stocks - as it arguably did shortly after Mr. Bush delivered his speech - but eventually results in a dependable shield against limited nuclear strikes.
Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade. Email him at email@example.com.
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