Geopolitical Diary: The BMD Issue Comes to the Fore

4 MINS READJun 30, 2009 | 01:54 GMT
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The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, told Polish military officials in Warsaw on Monday that Washington is still undecided on how to proceed with the ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Speaking at a news conference with his Polish counterpart, Gen. Franciszek Gagor, Mullen said that the BMD deployment is still under review, but that "the United States is committed to the relationship with Poland and certainly supporting modernization of the Polish military." With U.S. President Barack Obama set to meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev — as well as with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the man truly in charge at the Kremlin — between July 6 and 8, Moscow and Washington are accelerating their political exchanges. One issue will dominate the activity before Obama's visit and the meetings: increased U.S. military involvement in Central Europe, encapsulated by the proposed BMD system in Poland and the Czech Republic. From Moscow's perspective, greater U.S. involvement in Central Europe illustrates a key shift in Washington's posture in Europe. While the Cold War ultimately was about the disposition of Germany — and Germany therefore was torn apart by the geopolitical forces of the period — the "new" Cold War between resurgent Russia and the United States, the global hegemon, is about the disposition of Poland. A weak and insecure Poland isolated on the open North European plain, between Germany and Russia, poses no threat to Moscow, nor would it be able to counter Russia's influence on its borders — particularly in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. However, a confident Poland bolstered and armed by an aggressive patron would not be simply a regional competitor, but a jumping-off point for a host of anti-Russian forces. Thus, it would pose a threat to Russia — one that could counter Moscow's designs for the region. Poland is hoping that the United States will be that patron. For Warsaw, the BMD system has little to do with potential nuclear threats emanating from the Middle East (or even from Moscow). It is about entrenching a U.S. presence in Poland for the long haul — committing Washington to defending the portion of the North European plain between the Oder and Bug rivers, in much the same way that Washington was committed to the defense of West Germany during the Cold War. Thus, Obama's visit to Moscow next week has prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity between Moscow, Washington and Warsaw. For its part, Moscow is trying the stick-and-carrot approach. The Russian military began a major military exercise in its North Caucasus region on Monday, likely to signal that NATO and its ally Georgia are powerless to prevent Russian dominance in the region. However, Moscow also has nudged Kyrgyzstan to reverse its decision to end the U.S. lease of the Manas airbase, which is vital for NATO military operations in Afghanistan. And the Russians have signaled that they might agree to the transport of "lethal" military supplies through Russian territory (including its airspace) to Afghanistan, thus allowing Washington to avoid shipping supplies through turbulent Pakistan. Meanwhile, Washington has softened its stance on BMD: Mullen suggested that Washington is considering a Russian proposal about using Soviet-era radar facilities in Gabala, Azerbaijan — a statement that Russian media have given particular attention since Mullen's visit. (STRATFOR has noted the marginal utility of this radar.) Ultimately, even if the Russians and the Americans arrive at a mutually acceptable arrangement on the BMD program during talks next week, the question of Poland will remain. A deepening of Polish-U.S. military ties would not stop with a BMD system — even one in which Russia is involved. Washington already has completed delivery of nearly 50 F-16C/D fighter jets in the latest Block 52 configuration — among the most modern F-16s flown in the NATO alliance — to Poland. The Pentagon is quickly closing in on a deal to deploy U.S. Patriot missiles to Poland and/or sell them to Warsaw directly. Therefore, even if the United States backs away from the BMD issue, the victory would be a Pyrrhic one for Moscow — for it is this arrangement that the Kremlin has truly feared all along. The BMD issue – which would put 10 ballistic missile interceptors near Poland's Baltic coast – was one issue on which the Kremlin felt it could gain a lot of traction. But an aggressive, confident and U.S.-backed Poland perched on Russia's borders would be a real geopolitical problem for Moscow.

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