Friday, April 27, 2007
An ominous growl from Moscow
Vladimir Putin's last (he promises) state-of-the-union speech was a disturbingly hawkish one, announcing that Moscow would suspend its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe as a response to the U.S. plan to deploy a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.
Putin effectively announced that Russia was joining a new arms race, and declared the old fears about a nuclear confrontation may no longer be a thing of the past. If the missile shield goes ahead, he said today, "the threat of causing mutual damage and even destruction increases many times."
Pulling out of the 1990 treaty is a largely symbolic gesture since it's 1999 update was never ratified by NATO countries because of Russia's failure to comply with conditions that it pull its soldiers out of Georgia and Moldova. Nonetheless, it's a strong declaration of how far relations between Moscow and the West have deteriorated under Putin.
The treaty regulates the number of tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces each side can deploy in Europe, and its signing 17 years ago was one of the biggest signs that the (first) Cold War was coming to an end.
As I noted in a previous post, the expansion of NATO and particularly the deployment of the missile shield are viewed in as hostile encirclement by the Kremlin. "This is not just a defence system, this is part of the US nuclear weapons system," Putin said today.
It will be interesting to see the American response. To date, Condoleeza Rice has ridiculed the Russian suggestion that the the shield poses any kind of risk to Moscow. She points out, correctly, that Russia has thousands of warheads that would overwhelm the small system that the U.S. wants to set up in Poland and the Czech Republic.
This has all the makings of the most serious crisis in U.S.-Russian relations since the fall of the USSR.
Another interesting and ominous note in Putin's address yesterday: while he promised that next year's address will be delivered by another head-of-state - suggesting that he still intends not to break the constitution and run for a third term in office - he added that "it is premature for me to declare a political will."
The last remark drew the loudest applause of the day.