The Cuban missile crisis began in 1961 when the US started to deploy 15 Jupiter IRBM — intermediate-range ballistic missiles — in Turkey, close to the Soviet border. With a range of 1,500 miles and a flight time of about 16 minutes, the missiles threatened several cities — including Moscow.
On October 14, 1962, photographs shot by US reconnaissance planes and shown to President John F. Kennedy revealed similar installations being erected in Cuba, as a response to the American threat. Days later, on October 28, after a dramatic confrontation threatened world peace, Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, with the intercession of the Secretary General of the United Nations, agreed both sides would dismantle their installations.
Now 46 years later US President George W. Bush wants to install a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and a radar tracking station in Poland. News of US missiles being positioned so close to Russia triggered a “mini-Cuban missile crisis.”
Russia’s initial reaction was not surprising. As soon as President Vladimir Putin managed to overcome his anger, he said he would direct Russian missiles at European cities in retaliation to the US plans to deploy in Central Europe.
But then the Russian president surprised Bush when the two men met a few weeks later, in June, at the G-8 Summit in Germany. Changing tactics once more and sidestepping his earlier threats to target European cities, Putin suggested that Russia joins the US initiative. Instead of the Czech Republic and Poland being used as bases for the defense system he recommended the use of a former-Soviet base in Azerbaijan. The Russian president had even gone to his Azeri counterpart and already obtained an agreement.
“Interesting,” was how Bush replied to Putin’s offer. That’s the diplomatic way of saying “thanks, but no.” Bush and his advisors probably never gave the Russian offer very serious thought. In any case it did not take very long for the United States to deem the Russian offer invalid on grounds that the Azeri station would not be acceptable from a technical point of view. The Americans said it was outdated.
But the Russian president, whose years in the KGB must have taught him how to remain cool under duress, was not so easily dissuaded.
In early July he flew to the United States and spent a weekend at the Bush family estate in Maine, in a relaxed atmosphere for what was, without a doubt, very stressful talks that even a fishing trip off the Atlantic coast on the Bush Sr.’s speedboat did little to smooth over.
And once again the Russian president came up with a new plan. This time Putin proposed to join the project as a partner and base the tracking station in Russia.
Meanwhile, Bush Jr. kept trying to convince the Russian president that his country has nothing to fear from those missiles. The US president stressed that the defensive missile system is needed to counter eventual threats emerging from Iran, if and when it reaches the point where it can produce its own nuclear weapons.
Why then is Putin so persistent in trying to get Bush to back away from the Czech/Polish project? So adamant is the Russian president to prevent this from becoming a reality that he keeps coming back with a new offer at every meeting. The answer to Putin’s opposition to the Czech/Polish defense plan can be found in two factors; one is of a strategic nature while the other is more emotional, combined with a brisk of nostalgia for the Soviet past.
Strategically, the Russians share the same fears the US has of a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, Russia has probably far more reason to worry of an Iran with nukes than the US. First, Russia is geographically much closer, needing only short or intermediary range missiles, which Iran already has, should it ever wish to strike at Russia. On the other hand, Iran would need to deploy intercontinental missiles, which it does not yet have, should it wish to strike at the US.
Second, Russia, a federal state, also has its share of problems with Islamist extremists operating from its southern Muslim republics, like Chechnya, who are seeking to break away from the motherland. In that respect Moscow and Washington have equal trepidation that a nuclear weapon would fall into the hands of Islamist terrorists, the consequences of which would be catastrophic for both.
On the emotional level, call it even a level of national pride, Moscow is highly reluctant to see two former Warsaw Pact countries enter into a defense agreement which may be viewed by many Russians as ganging up on Russia. Moscow still has a hard time digesting the fact that its former satellites states are now members of the European Union and, to add insult to injury, also members of NATO.
Still, despite Putin’s ongoing objections Bush said after meeting his Russian counterpart, “I think the Czech Republic and Poland need to be an integral part of the system.”
If for the Russian president the week got off to a bad start with his failure to convince the American president to change his mind and back away from the Czech Republic and Poland, at least it ended on a positive note as he managed to convince the International Olympic Committee to designate the Russian city of Sochi as the site for the 2014 Winter Olympics. This is the first time in the history of the Winter Games that Russia is chosen as a host and the second time, after the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, that Russia will host the Games.
Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC. He can be reached at [email protected]