Return of the Cold War

Tony WesolowskyFebruary 27, 2007

A member of "Young Russia" in a gas mask in front of a poster reading "Czech Today, Ukraine Tomorrow" during a rally against Czech participation in U.S. anti-missile defense system, near the Czech embassy in Moscow.

As if the Bush admin­is­tra­tion didn’t already have its hands full with the war on ter­ror” spi­ral­ing out of con­trol in Iraq and Afghanistan, its Jan. 20 announce­ment that it plans to expand the pro­posed U.S. mis­sile defense sys­tem into the for­mer War­saw Pact nations Poland and the Czech Repub­lic is threat­en­ing to re-kin­dle the Cold War.

Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has spo­ken out force­ful­ly against the pro­pos­al, call­ing it emblem­at­ic of the Unit­ed States’ increas­ing dis­re­gard for the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of inter­na­tion­al law.” In response, he threat­ened to pull Rus­sia out of the Con­ven­tion­al Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which spells out how many sol­diers and how much mil­i­tary hard­ware can be deployed through­out the continent.

Putin isn’t alone in his anger. Sev­er­al hun­dred peo­ple gath­ered on a snowy day in late Jan­u­ary at Wences­las Square in Prague, to protest the con­tro­ver­sial anti-mis­sile defense sys­tem. The pro­posed con­struc­tion has sparked debate in the cen­tral Euro­pean coun­try and mobi­lized pro­gres­sives who oppose it.

Refer­ring to the Sovi­et crack­down on the Prague Spring” reform of 1968, demon­stra­tors held up plac­ards read­ing: 1968 – Go Home, Ivan! 2007 – Go home, John!” Pavel, a Prague uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent, said he was tired of his gov­ern­ment kiss­ing someone’s ass.”

Under the pro­pos­al, the Czechs would house the radar sys­tem and the Poles the silos with 10 rock­ets to shoot down mis­siles fired from rogue regimes” like Iran and North Korea. The Unit­ed States already has mis­sile inter­cep­tor sites in Cal­i­for­nia and Alaska.

A mis­sile site in Poland would be the first part of the anti-mis­sile shield out­side the Unit­ed States and the only one in Europe. The gov­ern­ment does not have a man­date to autho­rize the base,” says Jan Tamas, a leader of the No Base” move­ment, which is call­ing for the issue to be decid­ed in a nation­al referendum.

Prime Min­is­ter Mirek Topolanek has opposed the the idea, argu­ing that secu­ri­ty issues usu­al­ly are not decid­ed by ref­er­en­dum.” Locat­ing the base here will undoubt­ed­ly improve the secu­ri­ty of the Czech Repub­lic and Czech cit­i­zens,” Topolanek said.

But many Czechs fear the base will make them the tar­get of ter­ror­ist attacks as they are dragged into Washington’s geopo­lit­i­cal schemes. Nev­er­the­less, sev­er­al polls show a major­i­ty of Czechs back the plan if it entails only a radar base, per­haps in hopes that in exchange the Unit­ed States will drop visa require­ments (and the oner­ous fees) for them. Lin­ger­ing fears of Rus­sia may also be tip­ping many Poles and Czechs into the arms, lit­er­al­ly, of the Americans.

Back­ers also see it as a chance for the Czech Repub­lic to do its part in the war on ter­ror.” Most promi­nent among them is for­mer dis­si­dent, play­wright and pres­i­dent, Vaclav Hav­el, who has backed sev­er­al Amer­i­can inter­ven­tions, includ­ing the Iraq war (although he now advo­cates for a U.S. withdrawal).

Do the Czechs want to be a mod­ern Euro­pean soci­ety, which feels a shared respon­si­bil­i­ty for the state of the world,” Hav­el asked on Jan. 25, or would we pre­fer to leave the res­o­lu­tion of glob­al prob­lems to others?”

Topolanek faces a tough fight to win par­lia­men­tary back­ing for the Amer­i­can plan. His frag­ile cen­ter-right gov­ern­ment was cob­bled togeth­er in Jan­u­ary after sev­en months of on-again, off-again talks. Topolanek’s Civic Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty gen­er­al­ly sup­ports the radar scheme, but the coali­tion part­ner Chris­t­ian Democ­rats are less enthu­si­as­tic, and the third and odd­est mem­ber of the gov­ern­ment, the Greens, are the most hos­tile, say­ing it would back the plan only if it is part of a NATO sys­tem and not just an Amer­i­can one.Ê

The leader of the oppo­si­tion Social Democ­rats, Jiri Paroubek, has said most of his party’s mem­bers oppose the idea. In ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, Paroubek backed off from calls for a ref­er­en­dum after being leaned on,” by U.S. offi­cials in Prague, accord­ing to the Lon­don Guardian. Still, the Social Democ­rats and, even more so, the Czech and Mora­vian Com­mu­nist Par­ty are in the oppo­si­tion camp.

Some of the wari­est Czechs are those liv­ing in Jince, about 30 miles south­west of Prague, where the Unit­ed States wants to base the radar instal­la­tion at a for­mer mil­i­tary site. Protests have been held there as well.

Czech For­eign Min­is­ter Karel Schwarzen­berg vis­it­ed the region in Feb­ru­ary to meet ner­vous local may­ors and reas­sure them that host­ing about 200 Amer­i­cans will pump up the local economy.

The Cold War is return­ing to Europe,” says Josef Hru­by, may­or of Zaje­cov, who met with Schwarzen­berg. I just don’t want to live through my kids hav­ing to learn how to put on gas masks.”

Judg­ing by the rhetoric, Russ­ian fears dwarf Czech con­cerns. On Jan. 23, Vladimir Popovkin, who com­mands Russia’s space forces, told Russ­ian news agen­cies Inter­fax and ITAR-TASS, The radar in the Czech Repub­lic would be able to mon­i­tor rock­et [Russ­ian] instal­la­tions in cen­tral Rus­sia and the North­ern Fleet.” And on Feb. 19, Gen­er­al Niko­lai Solovtsov, com­man­der of Russia’s mis­siles forces, upped the ante, say­ing, If the gov­ern­ments of Poland and the Czech Repub­lic take a deci­sion to this effect, the strate­gic mis­sile troops will be capa­ble of hav­ing these facil­i­ties as targets.”

On the same day in War­saw, Topolenek and his Pol­ish coun­ter­part Jaroslaw Kaczyn­s­ki said the sys­tem was not aimed at Rus­sia and expressed their clear­est sup­port yet for the plan.

Rus­sia wants Wash­ing­ton to promise in writ­ing that the mis­sile sys­tem is not aimed at its coun­try, accord­ing to a Feb. 6 Inter­fax report. The Rus­sians say, This is my back­yard. You need our coop­er­a­tion.’ They are right. You can­not stop Iran or con­tain Iran with­out Rus­sia. You need the Rus­sians on board,” Andrew Brookes, a space tech­nol­o­gy expert at London’s Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, told the AFP news agency on Jan. 26.

Some experts ques­tion the point, mil­i­tar­i­ly at least, in build­ing a radar sta­tion in the Czech Repub­lic. Accord­ing to Bruno Gruselle, a researcher at the Paris-based Strate­gic Research Foun­da­tion, the U.S. mil­i­tary already has radar sta­tions in Nor­way, in Green­land, and in Britain — on top of its Defense Sup­port Sys­tem satel­lite alert sys­tem — which per­mit the ear­ly detec­tion of mis­siles, wher­ev­er they come from.”

There’s also the ques­tion of whether the mis­sile defense sys­tem will ever be func­tion­al. Despite being the sin­gle largest defense research and devel­op­ment project in U.S. his­to­ry, with the Bush admin­is­tra­tion spend­ing more than $40 bil­lion on the pro­gram, only five of its 10 tests have been suc­cess­ful, and all of those were achieved with­in care­ful­ly con­trolled envi­ron­ments that did not reflect real-world conditions.

Per­haps the U.S. goal is more polit­i­cal than mil­i­tary. In his 1997 book, The Grand Chess­board, for­mer U.S. Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor Zbig­niew Brzezin­s­ki wrote that main­tain­ing U.S. pri­ma­cy would require Wash­ing­ton to pre­vent col­lu­sion and main­tain secu­ri­ty depen­dence among the vas­sals, to keep trib­u­taries pli­ant and pro­tect­ed, and to pre­vent the bar­bar­ians from com­ing together.”

None of the vas­sals here in New Europe” are mak­ing any men­tion of that.

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