Yesterday, the Kremlin seemed to put another nail in the coffin of U.S.-Russian relations by testing a new intercontinental ballistic missile supposedly capable of penetrating any missile-defense system.
Any missile-defense system? More like our missile-defense system.
In reality, the new Russian RS-24 long-range missile test is about a lot more than the advent of U.S. missile-defense systems. A lot more . . .
For starters, the missile's real targets include the domestic audience. Putin longs for Russia's heady superpower days - and so does much of his public. The once-proud Russian military, especially its strategic forces, have weakened from neglect; advanced U.S. missile defenses make it feel even more effete.
A new ICBM is a real shot in the arm. Demonstrations of renewed military might not only please his generals, but also distract from problems such as the retreat of democracy, corruption and rollbacks on media freedoms.
And the RS-24 isn't really an answer to the missile-defense sites that the United States plans to build in the Czech Republic and Poland, as Russia has implied. That system isn't a shield against Russia, but against Iran, whose runaway nuclear program might start pumping out bombs within the next two to three years.
More, it's meant to protect our European friends and allies as well as America. That's why NATO (which has been skeptical of missile defense) has expressed approval.
The Russkies point out that Iranian missiles can't reach Europe yet - or the United States. But "yet" is the operative term from our perspective: You can't just build a missile-defense base overnight.
And Russia's public complaints about the shield are plainly absurd - growling that the deployments are "destabilizing," and could turn Eastern Europe into a "powder keg."
In fact, the European missile-defense site doesn't affect Russia's strategic deterrent. Russia would launch its ICBMs at the United States over the North Pole, not Poland. The Russians know this - we've sent numerous high-level officials over to explain until they're blue in the gills.
Truth is, the Kremlin just doesn't like NATO's expansion into the old Soviet empire. It's a reminder of how far Russia has fallen - and a complicating factor in exerting influence in its old stomping grounds. It certainly doesn't want to see any more former Soviet satellites in its "near abroad" join NATO - but Ukraine and Georgia just might. Consider all the saber-rattling as push-back.
Russia's supposed "anger" and "fear" over the issue also serve as a fine red herring. In February, it announced it was withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, saying European missile defense was the cause. Then, when Russia put a moratorium on the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) accord last month, Western experts put it down as the same story.
In fact, Putin most likely wants out of the CFE so he can both build up Russian conventional forces and retain Moscow's power base in the Caucasus. Russia now has troops in both Moldova and Georgia, ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians who stayed after the Soviet Union fell - but really to keep the Kremlin's influence strong.
And he probably wants out of the INF because that accord limits the missiles Russia can deploy. The Kremlin is understandably nervous about the spread of nuclear and ballistic missile capability among its neighbors, including China, Pakistan, India, North Korea - and even Iran. (Ironically, Russia bears considerable blame for the proliferation; it's been selling technology and other know-how for years.)
In the end, the missile launch and all the other Russian chest-beating are about almost everything besides U.S. missile defense. We're just a good excuse for Russian "arms-racing" - the Kremlin has its eye on other potential competitors in its own weight class.
President Bush should keep this in mind when he meets with Putin in July in Kennebunkport, Maine - ensuring that our missile-defense efforts against the likes of Iran and North Korea remain robust and on track.
First appeared in the New York Post