Since the end of the recent G-8 summit in Germany, there have been signs of cooler thoughts in the US over a scheme earlier canvassed by President George Bush for setting up American missile bases in parts of eastern Europe, opposite some very sensitive regions of central and south-western Russia. Bush had pushed the scheme in the name of forestalling the danger of any hostile action by any ‘rogue’ State, by which he meant Iran.
At the G-8 summit, President Vladimir Putin had trumped the American proposal by suggesting that Russia and the US should jointly develop and use a large missile base which the Soviet Union had already set up — at Gabala in southern Azerbaijan in central Asia, which looks out towards most of the unsettled regions of southern Europe and West Asia, including Iran, and covers central and northern Europe — against any misadventure by any country in those regions. In the Soviet view, that could also have meant Israel.
Since the G-8 summit, Washington’s reactions to the Russian proposal, including one by the White House itself, has been more favourably nuanced than they were at or before the summit. There is no indication yet of a likely agreement between the two countries. But there are positive reactions to any possibility of mutual cooperation between the two.
These were promoted by some apprehensions expressed by the summiteers themselves, the public and the media during the summit, that we might be approaching another Cold War. Or something more serious than a Cold War, because Russia has already made it clear that if the US sets up sites in eastern Europe pointed at Russia, then Russia would also have to “find some targets in Europe”, as Putin put it in a public comment.
The normally sober Financial Times, writing with a touch of admonishment, said “Russia has lost all sense of proportion over missile defence.” The paper lost sight of the ominous “proportions” outlined by Putin as he saw them. Before he got to the G-8 table he had said “For the first time in history, American nuclear devices are going to be on the European continent.”
Perhaps the Financial Times also overlooked the joint warning by two American writers in the New York Times “that US-Russian relations” were “at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War”, or the heading of an article by an associate editor of the London Times that “It is the West, not Russia, that is starting the new Cold War”, or the assessment of the US-Canada Institute in Moscow that “Russian-US relations have hit their lowest point since the end of World War II”.
However, what is of greater interest now is not what happened before or during the summit but how to contain the fallout of that on the future. For example, the fallout of that on the bilateral relations between the US and Russia, the bottomline equation in which all other equations get subsumed in one way or another. Perhaps that problem will be addressed when Putin goes to the US in response to an invitation by President Bush to be a house guest. But the least that must be ensured in the meantime is that none of the incendiaries left behind by the latest summit catches fire. Of most immediate concern is the plan of missile bases in Europe pointing at Russia’s defence-sensitive regions.
After his meeting with Putin in Germany, Bush told correspondents that Putin had made some “interesting suggestions”. He also said the missile bases proposed by Russia were “not an act that a friend would do”. Therefore, the two had decided to have “ a strategic dialogue” at their meeting in the US in July.
Speaking after Bush at the same press conference, Putin clarified that instead of creating new missile bases they could use the radar station in Azerbaijan, “which we have rented”, and he added that the President of Azerbaijan had welcomed the idea. Putin further said this alternative proposal “would make it unnecessary for us to place our offensive complexes along the borders with Europe” and would also ensure that Europe did not suffer any debris from any incoming missile that might be destroyed by the defenders.
Obviously, there is sufficient common ground here between the two sides for them to cultivate further at their next meeting — and as explained by Putin it could also help in defusing the emerging dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions — “provided these consultations are not used to cover some unilateral actions.”
But American correspondents have confirmed that Putin has indeed sprung something which the world will have to mull over for some days and weeks. The Los Angeles Times, for example said, “Surprised US officials huddled several minutes after the two leaders spoke before discussing the matter with reporters.” A Russian commentator has described Putin’s disclosures about the Gabala radar base and the proposed joint use of the base by the two superpowers as “the event of the decade.”
That might or might not turn out to be “the event of the decade”. But if the forthcoming joint meeting between the two Presidents does not produce sufficiently positive results, the world will have to watch anxiously to see what else might become just such an event.
Pran Chopra is a political analyst and former chief editor, The Statesman