Battling Cold War Cliches

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Those in Russia who dream of a liberal thaw reacted very positively to President Dmitry Medvedev's debut at the Group of Eight summit in Japan. They happily drew a distinction between Medvedev's more relaxed style in contrast to Vladimir Putin, who threatened to retarget Russian missiles toward countries that raised his ire and who once promised to organize a circumcision for a journalist who posed unpleasant questions.

But just as Medvedev was acknowledging that some points of disagreement remained between the United States and Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Prague signing an agreement for the installation of a U.S. missile-defense system in the Czech Republic. The Foreign Ministry responded with a harshly worded statement, threatening to "react, not through diplomatic means, but with military and technical methods."

In describing the supposed threat posed by the elements of the U.S. missile-defense system, Moscow is just reiterating its same old argument that is repeatedly refuted. More interesting is its promise to respond with "military and technical methods." This could refer to two possible responses. The first would be to develop Russia's means for overcoming U.S. missile defenses. This would be a sure-fire but senseless exercise, since the U.S. missile-defense system in Europe is clearly not intended to shoot down Russian missiles.

The Kremlin has often said it possesses some kind of mysterious miracle warhead capable of overcoming any missile-defense system. But these officials seem to overlook the fact that the alleged warhead, according to reports in the press, begins its highly effective evasive maneuvers only during the final stage of its trajectory, whereas the U.S. system aims to intercept enemy missiles during their initial flight through space.

The situation would change dramatically if Russia decided to respond "asymmetrically" by creating a threat to the United States or those countries in which elements of its missile defense system are deployed. For example, the military top brass have lobbied for Moscow's withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which would allow Russia to deploy the Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region and aiming them at the Czech Republic and any country where U.S. interceptor missiles will be placed.

It is obvious that Russia is not ready for a new arms race. The military has been speaking for 10 years about producing the Iskander missile but has barely managed to put together a single Iskander squadron. Why do Russia's Foreign Ministry and military officials make empty and senseless threats?

Paradoxical as it might seem, Medvedev's successful debut at the G8 summit in Japan demonstrated the dangerous course of Russia's current foreign policy. For the last 12 years, Russian diplomacy made a concerted effort to bring military-political issues to the fore. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became clear that only Russia's military potential could demonstrate its right to be considered a superpower. Moscow would not, and could not, talk about anything other than military issues. But keeping the focus on military and strategic problems -- often artificially -- forced Russia and the West to continue their relationship based on the old model of mutual deterrence. And that inevitably led to a confrontational relationship.

In recent years, Moscow started to think that it could most easily express its dissatisfaction with Western politics by resorting to old Cold War cliches. The Kremlin does not like that Ukraine and Georgia want to join NATO, therefore it claimed that Western military bases will inevitably be built in those countries and that they will be equipped with missiles aimed at Russia. Moscow dislikes the way that the United States and Western Europe express their displeasure with Russia's suppression of civil freedoms and responds by going into hysterics about NATO building up military superiority.

Breaking free from that foreign policy model will be very difficult. This is primarily because it is much easier and convenient to fall back on an old, familiar Cold War mindset than to create new and creative initiatives that the country's negotiating partners will find interesting. To accomplish this, the Kremlin needs to better identify the country's national interests and then construct a foreign policy to support and advance them. But if this policy does not continue to vilify the West as it has traditionally done, defining those interests could be a difficult task.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.