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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Three Very Scary Words

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"Do the Russian authorities really think that the anti-missile batteries [in Poland] are targeted against them?" a U.S. diplomat asked me recently. "After all, we explained the technical specifications of the system to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic long ago. This wasn't exactly news to them, so I don't understand the reaction."

I answered that, no, the Kremlin does not believe the Americans.

Russia's leadership, it seems to me, is acting out of a deep sense of distrust toward U.S. actions when it comes to the missile-defense system. This distrust, however, is just a symptom of a broader world view among the country's leaders, including the man at the very top, President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin really appears to have developed the impression the United States is besieging Russia from all sides. NATO has expanded, and plans to expand yet further. And now they have to deal with new insults in the plans for the Czech Republic and Poland, countries which Moscow's current military and political elite still likely think of as former key Warsaw Pact members.

Then, last week, a representative of the U.S. military's high command announced that there would be "close cooperation on anti-missile defense" with Ukraine. And Ukraine is the one country, as Zbigniew Brzezinski once noted, without which Russia cannot become an empire again. All of this is too hard on a ruling elite that has not used the past 15 years to develop a new Russian mentality, but instead remained "post-Soviets."

Complicating the picture is the fact that image is taking on a heightened importance in modern Russia, which develops according to its own logic and blurs the line between PR and reality. The result is an escalation in the exchange of public statements. Almost every politician -- and now even rank-and-file journalists -- tries to add his voice to the anti-U.S. chorus. That chorus is no longer just singing -- it is screaming , although just what it is screaming about is not exactly clear.

The roots of the psychological reaction to the anti-missile battery issue go back to the 1980s, and the announcement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan of the anti-missile defense program, which ultimately earned the nickname Star Wars. The system planned at the time differed significantly from that planned today under U.S. President George W. Bush, that led his administration to take the United States out of the Ant-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. But as can often happen in big-time politics, the people involved sometimes neglect some of the essential details. ABM, the three-letter acronym for the treaty, held a major significance for the late Soviet ruling elite, as it does now for the current post-Soviet leadership.

Reagan's campaigning for the Star Wars program generated a great deal of skepticism as to whether it was technically feasible and whether it constituted a serious threat to the Soviet Union. Soviet propagandists labeled it as such -- at the top of their lungs. It was then the words "asymmetrical response" first appeared in Russian propaganda. The Soviet leaders were supposedly ready with this in answer to U.S. military plans, although nothing more specific about the nature of this answer was ever provided.

It was all propaganda.

In reality, Soviet Leonid Brezhnev and Yury Andropov, then head of the KGB, were afraid of Reagan's program. They perceived it not only as a serious challenge to the Soviet armed forces, but to the Communist system itself. Above all else, it was taken as a technological challenge that called for a swift and equally high-tech response. The fallout from that fear was the realization that the Soviet economy and social model as a whole were unable to respond adequately to such a challenge. This meant that the Soviet Union had lagged hopelessly behind the West. The idea emerged that something had to be done! This motivated Andropov -- who succeeded Brezhnev as general secretary of the Communist Party -- to make some modest attempts at reforming the Soviet system and economy. Mikhail Gorbachev continued this effort. The way it ended is well-known: It turned out the system was impossible to The Soviet Union collapsed -- an event Vladimir Putin has labeled the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

In the early 1980s, during the first missile-defense debacle, Putin was already working for the KGB in East Germany. As a former special services agent, it is unlikely that he avoided internalizing some of the same ideas that had had taken hold of his superiors. It looked like war with the West was becoming more than just a possibility.

What looks like an over-blown reaction can be explained by a three-word history: Anti-missile defense system.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil magazine.