War Stories

How Putin Played Bush in Kennebunkport

And how Bush could still come out on top.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin emerged the clear winner of last weekend’s Kennebunkport summit. The Russian president not only caught the only fish during a three-man boat ride (Bushes 41 and 43 came up empty-handed in their own pond), but also, jujitsu-style, turned a casual remark by his host into a stinging political trap.

The good news is that, perhaps more than Putin realized, the trap is one that an American president should welcome. George W. Bush should take the bait, in the interests of our national security.

The bad news is that he almost certainly won’t, because his concept of national security is so skewed.

Putin dangled the bait at a joint press conference, when he proposed an alternative to President Bush’s plan of installing missile-defense batteries in the Czech Republic and Poland. Putin’s opposition to this plan, two months earlier, set off the fiercest rhetorical exchanges between Russian and U.S. officials since the Cold War. Both leaders scheduled the holiday summit mainly to calm the storm.

Putin’s proposal was to put the missile-defense system in Azerbaijan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, whose leaders (this must certainly be no coincidence) are much closer to Moscow, in geography and in politics, than are the Czechs’ or Poles’.

When Putin advanced a similar idea at the G-8 summit a few weeks earlier, U.S. officials noted that the radar currently operating in Azerbaijan—which he’d proposed using for missile defense—wasn’t sophisticated enough for the task. It could detect the launching of missiles, but it could not track them in flight.

At Kennebunkport, Putin said: OK, then, let’s modernize the radar, or, if that’s too hard, build a new one, either in Azerbaijan or in southern Russia.

Bush—like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s—had occasionally proposed that the United States and Russia share command of a missile-defense system. Mikhail Gorbachev never took the idea seriously; nor did any U.S. officials (except, perhaps, Reagan himself). But now Putin called Bush’s bluff, suggesting that the system—wherever it’s located—be put under the NATO-Russia Council’s control, with joint early warning centers in Moscow and Brussels.

Putin added, “There will be no need to place any more facilities in Europe”—that is, in either Poland or the Czech Republic—and U.S.-Russian relations will be elevated to a new level, a genuine “strategic partnership.”

Bush, reportedly caught by surprise but wishing to remain polite, called Putin’s move “very constructive and bold. … I think it’s innovative, I think it’s strategic. But … I think that the Czech Republic and Poland need to be an integral part of the system.”

Putin left it to Sergei Ivanov—first deputy prime minister, former defense minister, and the man most likely to win Putin’s endorsement in Russia’s presidential election next March—to lay down the threat. If the United States does not go along with Putin’s “compromise,” Ivanov said, Moscow will be forced to conclude that the missile-defense system is actually aimed at Russia and, therefore, to deploy new offensive nuclear missiles on the western borders and to aim them at Europe, in order to offset the system’s “destabilizing” effect.

This is political gamesmanship of a very high order, and Putin made no bones about it. “The deck has been dealt, and we are here to play,” he said at the Kennebunkport press conference. “And I would very much hope that we are playing one and the same game.”

At this point, let’s back up and review a few basic facts.

First, Iran does not yet have long-range missiles, nuclear weapons, or the ability to miniaturize the latter in order to fit them on the former. True, it might have such weapons by 2011, the year when the missile-defense system is scheduled to be up and running. Or it might not.

Second, the missile-defense system in question has not yet been remotely proved to work. This is the same system as the one under construction in Alaska, except that the rocket booster will have an additional stage. The program’s test record is mixed; its successful tests have been carefully planned set pieces that bear little resemblance to an actual attack; and it has undergone no tests—nor are any such tests planned—against an attack by more than one missile at a time or by a missile that releases decoys as well as warheads (an easy task).

Meanwhile, the Polish and Czech parliaments, which must ratify the basing plan, are getting nervous about the idea, for three reasons. They don’t savor the prospect of reigniting long-doused tensions with Russia. They’re beginning to realize that the radar could as easily be a target of an attack as a defense against one. And they’re noticing that the system wouldn’t defend all of Europe, in any case. (In fact, the original plan was for the system to shoot down Iranian missiles as they flew overhead on their way to the United States; only later, to gain local support, did the Pentagon expand the concept to include defending part of Europe, too.)

In other words, all this fuss is over a missile-defense system that probably can’t defend against an attack by missiles that don’t exist—deployed on territory that might not be leased.

Putin knows this, Bush knows this, and each knows the other knows he knows this.

The easiest way to get out of this jam is to concede that the whole concept is a fantasy and to drop it. But President Bush won’t do that, in part because it would look too much like surrender, in part because he still seems to believe that missile defense will work.

So, here’s another way to escape Putin’s trap: Accept his proposal.

Besides throwing Putin off balance, the move would have three benefits.

First, a radar (even a more advanced radar) in Azerbaijan might not be well-positioned to track missiles once they’re streaking across the heavens, but its closer proximity to Iran would make it extremely well-positioned—more so than radar in Eastern Europe—to provide early warning of a missile’s launch.

Second, accepting Putin’s proposal would derail his campaign to split the United States from its new allies in Eastern Europe. If Putin’s aim is to depict America as intransigent and hostile to Russia, Bush’s acceptance of his offer would make the United States seem sincere and diplomatic—and, for what it’s worth, keep alive the possibility of a Czech-Polish deployment in the future.

Third, lassoing Russia into a plan that allegedly protects Europe from an Iranian nuclear attack would place Russia under greater pressure to help keep Iran from enriching uranium for building nuclear bombs. Any subsequent reluctance by Moscow to rein in Tehran—through either U.N. sanctions or European Union negotiations—could be depicted as a sign that the Russians, not the Americans, have dubious motives when it comes to missile defense.

Since the purpose of a European missile defense is to ward off the threat of Iranian nukes, a better way to do this—both cheaper and more foolproof—would be to block them from getting nukes in the first place.

However, Bush is not likely to go this route because he and Putin are, in fact, playing different games.

Putin wants to block the United States from establishing any sort of military toehold in Eastern Europe, the front yard of its former empire; and, in the process of doing so, he wants to disrupt this bourgeoning East-West alliance as much as possible.

Bush wants to start laying concrete on the Czech and Polish bases—to establish this toehold—while he’s still in office. One reason he doesn’t even want to look at the Azerbaijan offer is that, even with both sides acting on the best of intentions, it will take at least two years to do the analyses and work out the details—by which time there will be a new U.S. president, who might choose to scuttle the whole notion.

The political and technical realities dictate that the United States might have to let go of the Euro-missile-defense fantasy in any case. We might as well, therefore, press the current situation to our advantage while we can. Putin’s trap provides an ironic opportunity.