Now, the geopolitical backdrop has shifted. Thanks to soaring oil prices, Russia's economy is booming, and its nationalist confidence is hardening. Its commercial ties with Iran have given Putin bargaining leverage over the West on a strategically vital issue. In short, if Bush wanted his cherished missile-defense plan to gain an easy entrée to Russia's backyard (or, to see it another way, the front yard of its former empire), he should have come "to the game" on time; he should have followed the standard playbook.
This dust-up isn't really about missile defense. Ten anti-missile interceptors are hardly "destabilizing"; even if they worked perfectly, and even if Bush meant to use them to intimidate the Russians (as in the stalest Soviet-leftover paranoid scenarios), they'd hardly nullify the thousands of nuclear warheads that Russia still has on its missiles. Even the Russians sometimes admit as much.
Nor, despite the rhetoric, are these interceptors really meant to protect Europe. In a phone interview today, Thomas Christie, the Pentagon's former chief of weapons testing, recalled the initial discussions of the European missile-defense plan in 2003-04. The focus, he says, was to shoot down missiles launched by Iran as they passed over Europe on their way to the United States. The interceptors—again, assuming they worked (a doubtful proposition)—could provide protection for some parts of Europe, but that wasn't the intent.
What the Russians really fear about this plan is the vast American presence that goes with it. The anti-missile interceptors—the same models as the ones now in Alaska—are gigantic, as big as the old intercontinental ballistic missiles and, like them, buried in substantial blast-hardened silos. To deploy 10 of them, along with a huge X-band radar system, will require an enormous military base, heavily staffed, apportioned with the usual complement of U.S. Air Force infrastructure and American amenities.
In short, the United States would be gaining a substantial foothold deep inside Eastern Europe, closer than ever to the Russian border.
The members of the European Union are upset for similar reasons. Just as the EU is nurturing its own integrated defense council, and as NATO is taking a commanding role in Afghanistan, here come the Americans—so it seems—negotiating a separate deal with the Czechs and Poles, splitting not only the European Union but also the continent.
Did Bush or his aides intend to foster this impression? Probably not. But anyone with the slightest skill at diplomacy—anyone with the glimmer of a strategic outlook on the world—would have anticipated this reaction and pre-empted its arousal.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Europe today, trying to unruffle feathers and offering a plan to share missile-defense technology with Russia. The response thus far has been cool. The question, as one Russian official put it, is who controls this technology and where.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, hardly an anti-Westerner, caught the flavor of the conflict in an interview with the Russian news agency Ria Novosti, "It's all about influence and domination in Europe."
If Bush and his team want to play that game, they'd better learn how.