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Lavrov's red line

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Martin Sieff
Washington (UPI) Sept. 5, 2007
Tensions between the United States, NATO and Russia over the Bush administration's plans to deploy BMD defenses in Central Europe got a lot worse this week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned flatly on Monday that the Kremlin regarded the U.S. plan to build an anti-ballistic missile radar base in Poland over the next three or four years and to construct a sister advanced radar tracking facility next door to it in the Czech Republic would be a "red line in the sand" for Russia.

"It should be clear that, in all absence of the confrontation of foreign policy of Russia, the so-called red lines exist for us, when a real threat emerges to our national security or to the current international and legal order," Lavrov said in a speech to students at the elite Moscow State Institute of Foreign Affairs, the newspaper Kommersant reported Tuesday.

"Amid such issues are, for instance, the plans to station the bases of the U.S. global missile defense system in Eastern Europe (and a) settlement in Kosovo," Lavrov said.

"Russia doesn't bargain and our international partners should understand it," Lavrov said.

Over the past year we have traced in this and our companion BMD Focus column the Russian government's consistent, fierce opposition to the proposed new BMD facilities in Central Europe. The U.S. government says they are essential to protect the United States and Western Europe from the threat of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that could be launched from Iran. Even some Russian experts have publicly agreed with that assessment.

Bush administration and NATO officials have publicly remained optimistic that they could convince the Russians that the proposed bases were not aimed against their strategic nuclear deterrent, but all their diplomatic efforts to make this case have been brushed aside by a furious Kremlin.

Lavrov's rejection of Washington's position is not therefore new, but the ominous tone of his remarks indicates that the Russian government may already have decided upon serious countermeasures if work goes ahead on the proposed new BMD bases.

Russian First Deputy Premier and former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov -- widely seen as President Vladimir Putin's most likely successor when he is scheduled to step down after two full four-year terms in office next year -- gave a frank warning of what one of those countermeasures might be at the beginning of July.

Ivanov then publicly warned that if the Bush administration pushed ahead with its plans for the two new bases, Russia would respond by openly deploying ballistic missiles targeted on the bases in its oblast or region of Kaliningrad. It could certainly deploy its excellent new Iskander missile there.

For the Kremlin has never seen the plan to build the bases as "only" about BMD to protect Europe and the United States from Iranian nuclear missiles. They see it as the biggest, boldest bridgehead yet in the U.S. and NATO encroachment on the old former Soviet area's sphere of influence in Central Europe and even among the former Soviet republics of the so-called near abroad that for decades -- and in many cases for centuries -- were part of the Soviet or Russian Empires.

The Russian government's response, as articulated by Ivanov, was not primarily about the nuts and bolts of BMD issues, or even about maintaining the mutual assured destruction balance between Russia and the United States that has maintained the overall peace of the world for the past six decades. It was primarily a hardball political message sent to Washington, to the Czech Republic and most of all to Poland: "Do not take your security and the stability of Central Europe for granted if you continue to ignore us."

Kaliningrad, although utterly ignored by the American news media, remains one of the most important potential flash points and security issues between Russia and the nations of the European Union.

Kaliningrad is a messy, potentially explosive geopolitical anomaly left over from the Cold War. The oblast, or region, is in an integral part of the Russian federation. But it is cut off from any land contact with the rest of Russia and its land borders are with Lithuania and Poland, both pro-Western, traditionally fiercely anti-Russian former Soviet client states. Lithuania was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union for half a century.

Today, both Poland and Lithuania are member states of the European Union and the U.S.-led NATO alliance. To openly deploy ballistic missiles in the Kaliningrad region would be a huge escalation of tensions between East and West in Central Europe.

Over the past 14 years Democratic and Republican presidents and policymakers alike have eagerly expanded NATO farther and farther east, confident that in doing so they were stabilizing Central Europe behind the U.S. nuclear and military shield.

But with the U.S. Army bogged down worse than ever in Iraq, and other security threats and potential challenges beckoning around the world from Iran through China to North Korea, the U.S. ability to continually ensure that guarantee looks increasingly questionable.

The policy of deploying BMD assets in Central Europe makes a great deal of sense from the narrow perspective of defending the United States and Western Europe against Iranian nuclear armed missiles. But Lavrov's grim warning Monday confirmed that it now threatens to set off a huge anti-Western reaction on the part of Russian policymakers that could create far greater and more immediate threats than the one the BMD interceptors are intended to counter.

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