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Archive for April, 2008

[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

Over the centuries, many in the West and in Russia itself, have found it convenient and relatively accurate to characterize the Russian people as paranoid. Over the centuries, Vikings, Tatars, Mongol hordes, Swedes, French and Germans have invaded Russia. Had that happened here, we might well have become paranoid ourselves.

This national paranoia persisted during the Cold War when the Soviets always referred to themselves as victims of “capitalist encirclement.” They have also used these foreign “threats” to keep a disparate country united and their peoples’ minds off the inadequacies of their lives. If you can acknowledge those realities, then their recent behaviors are more understandable.

At first glance, one might think the Cold War was starting up again. Presidents Bush and Putin have been arguing about issues in Central Europe and the dialogue does seem to have some of the old tone of the Cold War. But there is no resurgence of the Cold War. We are not about to have a nuclear holocaust. What’s happening here is that two powerful nations are flexing their muscles — with predictable results.

Since the relative instability of the 1990s and as a result of the increased social and political stability that Vladimir Putin’s policies have brought to Russia, as well as the very helpful rise in the value of vast quantities of Russian oil on world markets, Russia has become far more socially and economically healthy than it ever was during the Soviet era. Putin, despite the fact that some of his policies are patently anti-democratic, has become wildly popular in Russia. He has approval numbers that any American president would die for.

Russia probably feels better about itself today than it has at any time during the past century. It sees itself as a player on the world stage, one that should be treated with respect.

If you look at today’s events knowing that paranoia is a longtime part of the Russian psyche, you will see why they see only threats and problems in the current U.S. policy of further expanding NATO to include their former East European satellites. For the Soviets, in the worst case, NATO has remained a military threat. In the best case, its move into a former sphere of Russian influence in Central Europe is humiliating for a country that is increasingly feeling it should be respected. And now, their oil and gas riches give them considerable leverage in Europe, where those commodities are needed; and they have used that leverage to persuade some NATO members to their side. Further NATO expansion has been shelved, at least for the moment.

Any indication that the United States is changing the rules that existed during the Cold War still brings apprehension to the Russians. Our withdrawal from the ABM treaty and the Bush administration’s drive to install a “missile shield” are precisely the rule changes they fear.

The 1972 ABM treaty, from which the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2001, was part of the structure of MAD (mutually assured destruction) that played an important role in keeping the Cold War from becoming hot. That treaty stipulated that its cosigners, the USSR and the U.S., would not develop anti-ballistic missile systems. This was based on the reality that if one country were to do that, the balance brought by MAD would be tipped in favor of the country that had the ABM system. If that system had been developed and deployed secretly, its owner would be in a position to initiate a preemptive strike, since it would have the ABM system needed to negate the counterattack. Thus the ABM treaty was an important part of keeping the peace.

America has withdrawn from that treaty, is seeking to place the “missile shield” on the territory of Russia’s former satellites and to bring more of those countries into NATO, an organization created to counter Soviet power. If you were a paranoid Russian today, wouldn’t you wonder about American motives?

The reality is that we have no objectively valid reason to build the missile shield at this time or to expand NATO further into what was previously a Soviet sphere of influence. On the other hand, the Russians have no objectively valid reason to fear those American moves.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East, working primarily on Soviet and East European targets. He lives in Williston.

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Feeding Russian paranoia

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

Over the centuries, many in the West and in Russia itself, have found it convenient and relatively accurate to characterize the Russian people as paranoid. Over the centuries, Vikings, Tatars, Mongol hordes, Swedes, French and Germans have invaded Russia. Had that happened here, we might well have become paranoid ourselves.

This national paranoia persisted during the Cold War when the Soviets always referred to themselves as victims of “capitalist encirclement.” They have also used these foreign “threats” to keep a disparate country united and their peoples’ minds off the inadequacies of their lives. If you can acknowledge those realities, then their recent behaviors are more understandable.

At first glance, one might think the Cold War was starting up again. Presidents Bush and Putin have been arguing about issues in Central Europe and the dialogue does seem to have some of the old tone of the Cold War. But there is no resurgence of the Cold War. We are not about to have a nuclear holocaust. What’s happening here is that two powerful nations are flexing their muscles — with predictable results.

Since the relative instability of the 1990s and as a result of the increased social and political stability that Vladimir Putin’s policies have brought to Russia, as well as the very helpful rise in the value of vast quantities of Russian oil on world markets, Russia has become far more socially and economically healthy than it ever was during the Soviet era. Putin, despite the fact that some of his policies are patently anti-democratic, has become wildly popular in Russia. He has approval numbers that any American president would die for.

Russia probably feels better about itself today than it has at any time during the past century. It sees itself as a player on the world stage, one that should be treated with respect.

If you look at today’s events knowing that paranoia is a longtime part of the Russian psyche, you will see why they see only threats and problems in the current U.S. policy of further expanding NATO to include their former East European satellites. For the Soviets, in the worst case, NATO has remained a military threat. In the best case, its move into a former sphere of Russian influence in Central Europe is humiliating for a country that is increasingly feeling it should be respected. However, their oil and gas riches give them considerable leverage in Europe where those commodities are needed and they have used that need to persuade some NATO members to their side. Further NATO expansion has been shelved, at least for the moment.

Any indication that the United States is changing the rules that existed during the Cold War still brings apprehension to the Russians. Our withdrawal from the ABM treaty and the Bush administration’s drive to install a “missile shield” are precisely the rule changes they fear. Quite apart from the political, technical and military aspects of the development and feasibility of the missile shield, one has to wonder about the way in which this subject has been breached and pursued by our government since 9/11.

The 1972 ABM treaty, from which the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2001, was part of the structure of MAD (mutually assured destruction) that played an important role in keeping the Cold War from becoming hot. That treaty stipulated that its cosigners, the USSR and the U.S., would not develop anti- ballistic missile systems. This was based on the reality that if one country were to do that, the balance brought by MAD would be tipped in favor of the country that had the ABM system. If that system had been developed and deployed secretly, its owner would be in a position to initiate a preemptive strike, since it would have the ABM system needed to negate the counterattack. Thus the ABM treaty was important part of keeping the peace.

America has withdrawn from that treaty, is seeking to place the “missile shield” on the territory of Russia’s former satellites and to bring more of those countries into NATO, an organization created to counter Soviet power. If you were a paranoid Russian today, would you wonder about American motives?

The reality is that we have no objectively valid reason to build the missile shield at this time or to expand NATO further into what was previously a Soviet sphere of influence. On the other hand, the Russians have no objectively valid reason to fear those American moves.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East, working primarily on Soviet and East European targets. He lives in Williston.

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