Putin’s ‘Do-over’

Twenty-six years ago this Fall, a titanic struggle played out in Europe.  The main protagonists were Ronald Reagan and the Western alliance he led on the one hand and Yuri Andropov’s KGB-led Soviet Union on the other.  It proved to be the beginning of the end of what Mr. Reagan properly called the “Evil Empire.”  Today, one of Andropov’s agents, Vladimir Putin, is striving for a “do-over” – one which may have no-less-far-reaching implications.

In 1983, the issue was whether the NATO alliance would proceed with its agreed plan to deploy hundreds of Pershing II ballistic missiles and Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles in five Western European nations (collectively known as Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces or INF).  The allies had decided such deployments were necessary in the face of the Soviets’ massive deployment of their own INF missiles, which the West called SS-20s – formidable weapons armed with three nuclear warheads intended to intimidate and dominate Western Europe.

By 1983, the Kremlin had made the defeat of this plan its top priority.  The KGB mobilized massive demonstrations aimed at preventing the basing counties from proceeding with the associated construction and ultimately with the installation of the missiles.  The Soviets employed both carrots and sticks – seductive arms control negotiations and threats of Armaggedon – to divide the United States from its allies.

That gambit was made both more urgent and much more difficult for the USSR’s leader Andropov, who had long headed his nation’s feared intelligence service and secret police, because of a decisive Reagan victory in the course of the previous year.  The American president had adamantly opposed the construction of a massive new Siberian gas pipeline on the grounds that it would clearly have made Western Europe dependent upon Soviet energy – and, therefore, susceptible to Moscow’s blackmail.  Despite the determination of European leaders (including his friend Margaret Thatcher) to provide the funding and technology for the so-called “second strand” pipeline, Mr. Reagan ultimately prevailed.

Strong U.S. presidential leadership and the steadiness of the Defense Department (in which I was privileged to serve at the time) under the leadership of Mr. Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stymied Soviet attempts to divide and conquer.  Even though the American State Department and its counterparts in the basing countries frantically sought an arms control deal that would prevent the INF deployment while leaving in place some number of SS-20s, President Reagan insisted on “the Zero Option”:  Unless the Soviets agreed verifiably to eliminate all of the latter, NATO would proceed to put in place its off-setting deterrent forces.

The Soviets ultimately agreed to the Zero Option – but only after the allies demonstrated that they would not be dissuaded, divided or defeated.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Mikhail Gorbachev came to power unable to counter or contend with the Reagan strategy for destroying the USSR (laid out in several presidential decision documents).  Gorbachev proceeded to try to make adjustments, both at home and abroad, to keep the USSR a going concern.  Fortunately, in the end, the Evil Empire and even the Soviet Union itself came a-cropper.

Flash forward to today.  The NATO allies have again agreed to provide for their collective defense, this time by deploying not hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles but a radar and ten unarmed anti-missile interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively.  This initiative has been made necessary and is sized minimally to contend with the emerging Iranian missile threat to Europe and the United States.

This time around, however, Andropov’s successor as the de facto master of the Kremlin, former KGB thug-turned president/prime minister of Russia Vladimir Putin, thinks he will be able to prevail over the Atlantic Alliance where his former boss did not.

And with good reason.  The United States is now led by a president who is– to put it charitably– no Ronald Reagan.  Barack Obama and his administration have been determined to “reset” relations with Moscow.  Toward that end, they have (among numerous other concessions) signaled a willingness to cashier the deployment in Eastern Europe of missile defenses that the Russians claim, preposterously, to find threatening.

In fact, the New York Times reported on Saturday that Team Obama is poised to look at alternatives – sea-based missile defenses or putting those or other anti-missile systems ashore someplace other than Poland and the Czech Republic.  Among the candidates said to be under consideration are Turkey, the Balkans or Israel.  Never mind that these alternatives pose their own problems, including security, stability and geographic appropriateness given the trajectories of missiles Iran might launch.

The Polish and Czech governments are understandably horrified at this transparent bid to accede to the Kremlin’s efforts to reestablish a sphere of influence in Europe.  Other Europeans (notably, the Germans) now heavily dependent on Russian-supplied natural gas – another dramatic reversal of Reagan’s time-tested policies – and therefore subject to oft-practiced Moscow’s energy blackmail, are happy to join Washington in appeasing Putin.

Should the United States indeed go that route, it will amount to much more than a strategically costly “do-over” of the INF fight.  It will make plain to all the emerging “Obama Doctrine” with its three ominous characteristics: abandoning our allies, emboldening our enemies and diminishing our country.  The upshot, in sharp contrast to the Reagan legacy of pursuing peace through strength, will assuredly be a far more dangerous world.

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