Those Ukrainian, Iranian NATO Blues

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On the surface, it seems Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin each got what they wanted most at the NATO and Sochi summits. Bush is moving forward with the placement of anti-Iranian missiles in Poland, and Putin kept Ukraine out of NATO, at least for the time being.

It is certainly true that Iran may in time pose some danger to Israel, Europe and the United States. And perhaps it was an intentional provocation that Iran's announcement about 6,000 new uranium-enriching centrifuges coincided with the Bucharest and Sochi summits. But it remains highly debatable whether a missile-defense system is the best response to that potential threat, and the reason for this is simple -- most experts doubt it will work.

What is beyond doubt, however, is that the Poles are hitting up Washington for billions in military aid in exchange for allowing 10 missiles to be based on their territory. But Moscow's demands for a permanent monitoring presence on Polish territory could be a deal-breaker. Moreover, Warsaw is aware that if the next U.S. president is a Democrat he or she will be very unlikely to sign onto this foolish, costly and unpopular project.

In other words, the U.S. missile-defense system, which might not work anyway, may never get built in the first place. That hardly sounds like a success.

But this Bush initiative did succeed in one respect. It infuriated the Russians. Of course, only the most paranoid and gullible could believe that these missiles would ever be targeted at Russia.

Though the Kremlin pumped up the volume, its outrage was in part sincere. The missile base was an insult added to the injury of NATO's eastward expansion, which effectively cordoned Russia off from the Baltic to the Black seas. Moscow worries that all its gas shipments to Western Europe will soon have to pass through territory controlled by NATO, which many Russian politicians still consider a hostile alliance.

In fact, Bush's anti-Iranian missile plan was a godsend for Putin. It gave him something to protest as long as he got what he really wanted -- to keep Ukraine out of NATO.

"Do you understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state?" Putin told Bush in an outburst at a closed session of the NATO-Russian Council in Bucharest, Kommersant reported. Losing his temper, Putin revealed his real attitude toward Ukraine. According to this view, Ukraine is not a real state, nor is it a separate entity from Russia, with which it shares a common origin and historical ties. For Putin, Ukrainian statehood is nothing but the vanity of delusional nationalism. More to the point, a significant portion of Ukraine's population is ethnic Russian, and a significant portion of Ukraine's territory is subject to Russian claims. In 1954, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave Ukraine the Crimea, which was traditionally Russian, as a present, believing that the transfer didn't make any real difference since it remained part of the Soviet Union.

Putin has threatened to encourage the secession of the Crimea and the Russian-speaking, pro-Moscow eastern part of Ukraine if Kiev decide to join NATO. He was quoted as saying Ukraine would cease to exist as a state (after having said it wasn't a real state in the first place).

In other words, Putin is challenging NATO to a showdown: If you accept Ukraine into your ranks, we will foment civil war in one of your member states. Could NATO stand by and allow that?

This could lead to hostilities. The Kremlin has already threatened to target Ukraine with nuclear weapons, and now it might just be tempted to use them.

But hold on a minute. Thanks to Bush, there might be a missile-defense system in Poland that now could be used to shoot down Russian missiles -- the first 10 anyway.

Richard Lourie is the author of A Hatred For Tulips and Sakharov: A Biography.