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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Playing the Security Card

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Until recently, Russian military policy had one clear advantage: predictability. Then in mid-February, General Yury Baluyevsky, head of the General Staff, said Moscow might unilaterally opt out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In late April, President Vladimir Putin called for a moratorium on Moscow's application of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or CFE. And Moscow has repeatedly rejected U.S. offers to cooperate on anti-missile defense.

The West was both alarmed and perplexed. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer asked for an explanation of Putin's remarks and expressed his hope that Moscow would reconsider its intention to pull out of the CFE Treaty. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made no secret of her disappointment at the Kremlin's chilly response to a White House proposal on anti-missile defense, delivered by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his recent visit to Moscow.

"We have offered [the Russians] defense cooperation," Rice said. "I don't know why you would not want to engage in missile defense cooperation that gives you the possibility of protecting your people and your territory against missile threats from states that may not be deterrable."

In terms of military logic, Putin's recent escapades are rather dubious. Take the threat to withdraw from the CFE Treaty. Signed in 1990, the treaty set limits on heavy weapons and equipment systems deployed in the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries.

After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the treaty was revised to set limits for individual countries, rather than for entire alliances. The change favored Russia, since the new limits exceeded the military's existing stock of heavy weapons.

The CFE Treaty was adapted in 1999 at the Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At the same time, the OSCE adopted the so-called Istanbul commitments, under which Russia pledged to remove its forces from Georgia and Moldova. The adapted treaty will not come into force until all signatory states have ratified it, but its limits have already been observed.

If the Kremlin is serious about national security, the last thing it should do is opt out of the CFE Treaty. The countries of NATO possess three times as many conventional weapons as Russia, and this gap could widen if the treaty were abandoned. No wonder Russian officials dodge the issue of what the military would do under a moratorium. The country cannot afford to acquire weapons in excess of CFE limits.

The same can be said of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Opting out would mean that Russia could be surrounded by missiles capable of striking its major cities within minutes.

Moscow's position on the planned U.S. missile defense shield is equally irrational. In his Munich speech, Putin said Washington's plan to place elements of the system in Poland and the Czech Republic was a potential threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent. Alarmed, the United States proposed a joint working group on anti-missile defense, invited Russian experts to inspect installations in Alaska and California, and offered to create a joint missile tracking station.

None of this satisfied Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the offer was meaningless because it made no provision for joint threat analysis. Putin suggested discussing the proposed shield within the OSCE. But it was Baluyevsky who formulated Moscow's policy most clearly. He said the fact that missile defense and the CFE Treaty, which the United States and NATO had been avoiding, would now be the subject of multilateral talks was a major foreign policy success for Moscow. But Putin's real aim in imposing a military and political agenda on the West is to prevent discussion of the transfer of power in Moscow next March.

This whole story reminds me of Friedrich Engels' famous observation that the wars of medieval Europe were class struggles dressed up as religious conflicts.

Although the West poses no military threat to Russia at present, the Kremlin has expressed its annoyance with Western criticism of Putin's domestic policies in military terms.

It is no coincidence that the Kremlin is doing everything possible to place missile defense, the CFE Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty -- holdovers from the Cold War -- at the center of the international debate. Only in this context can Russia still assume the role of a superpower, and Putin -- the leader of a superpower.

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