Apparently regretting the role he played in bringing down the old Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev has this astoundingly bellicose op-ed in the NY Times. Gorbachev begins with the claim that Georgia basically "asked for it" through its overly harsh response to South Ossetian separatism. Gorbachev puts the blame on Saakashvili for repeatedly refusing to sign "a legally binding agreement not to use force" against South Ossetia. Talk about the puss calling the maggot white! Would that be like the agreement Russia signed pledging not to use force against Chechen separatists? Oh, wait, there was no such agreement. Only the Bush Administration rivals Gorbachev for tossing stones from inside the glass house in its statements that in the 21st century you can't just invade another country because you don't like its leadership. Or as Secretary of State Rice put it, "When you start invading smaller neighbours, bombing civilian infrastructure, going into villages and wreaking havoc and (carrying out) the wanton destruction of (its) infrastructure, that is isolating." Insert Iraq joke here.
Speaking of Secretary Rice, what are we to make of the fast-tracking of the deal to provide Poland with a missile shield? Rice may not even be technically correct when she says that missile defense is not "aimed at" anyone, since it's defensive. Back when I was smart enough to understand such things, I learned that missile defense is likely to be much more effective if it can hit missiles in the "boost phase," before incoming warheads have an opportunity to deploy decoys. So a missile defense system might indeed be aimed somewhere. But even if we're talking about a shield that operates only over Poland proper, the notion that it's not aimed at anybody is silly, as the Bush Administration has long argued that the shield's principal purpose would be to defend against an attack by Iran, not Russia.
Which brings us back to Russia. One of the grievances Gorbachev cites is American unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty. He's got a point about that one. The ABM treaty was defensible as preventing either the US or the Soviet Union (and later Russia) from developing incentives to launch a first strike (as I explained here). So a robust missile defense by a heavily armed nuclear power could be perceived by its rival nuclear power as a threat. But it's hard to see how the sort of limited defense Poland would have constitutes a threat to Russia. If Putin, excuse me, I mean Medvedev, wanted to nuke Warsaw, he could still do so easily. The reason he wouldn't, even if he wanted to, is the risk of US retaliation, which is the same regardless of whether or not Poland has some ABM capacity. Alternatively, Putin, Medvedev, Gorbachev, et al could be miffed because a Polish missile defense would undermine the effectiveness of an Iranian nuclear threat, but they can't say that either, and that also seems nuts. It's fair to think that Russia is aiding the Iranian nuclear program both to make a buck and to counter US/Western influence. The Russian leadership would have to be totally deranged to actually want Iran to nuke a European country.
All of this leads me to conclude that the US/Poland embrace and the Russian reaction to it are largely symbolic, and largely empty, gestures. The problem, however, as both American and Soviet game theorists discovered during the Cold War, is that the logic of escalation can turn symbolic threats into real, and devastating ones. Here's hoping cooler heads prevail.
Posted by Mike Dorf