Russia is not a clay pigeon on an American shooting range

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - According to the Western media, "Russian special forces used images of the poisoned former spy Alexander Litvinenko as target practice." I can understand their concern, as permitting such a folly would be absolutely amoral.

I can also understand the outrage of millions of Russians on learning on Friday morning that the Pentagon has put up Russia's image on the army shooting range. Moreover, it appears that Americans are prepared to fire live missiles if they consider the danger coming from Russia excessive.

This is how I interpret the following statement by Pentagon chief Robert Gates about Russia as an adversary.

"We need the full range of military capabilities," including ground combat forces to battle large armies and nimble special operations troops to scout out terrorist threats, Gates told the House Armed Services Committee. "We don't know what's going to develop in places like Russia and China, in North Korea, in Iran and elsewhere," he said.

Did Gates add Russia to the "axis of evil" by mistake? I don't think so, as he said some time later that in addition to waging a war on global terror, the Untied States needed to confront threats created by the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and unclear positions of such countries as Russia and China, which are also building up their armaments.

I don't know about China, but Gates chose a really bad time for berating Russia. Several days ago, President George W. Bush presented to Congress a draft federal budget for the 2008 fiscal year, where $700 billion out of the $2.9 trillion total is earmarked for defense, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the buildup of American forces, and the development of expensive missile systems.

So, is it the military buildup in Russia, whose defense budget is at least 25 times smaller than the American one, that is alarming Washington or vice versa? Had the Kremlin applied the same alarm scale to the U.S. military buildup, the humankind would have started crying wolf by now.

I was shocked by Gates' reference to the vague positions of countries such as Russia. I cannot believe that Robert Gates, a specialist on the Soviet Union and Soviet leadership, especially of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era, a one-time White House Russia analyst, and a former CIA director, has any doubts about the Kremlin's current position.

In December 2006, he thought Russia's position was clear enough to explain it in Senate during his nomination hearing. "I think that what Putin is trying to do, frankly, is re-establish Russia as a great power," Gates said. "And I think Putin is trying to restore the pride of Russia. I think he has a lot of popular support at home for the things he's trying to do."

Many people thought Gates would speak for the U.S. administration's more realistic "dove" faction, including as regards relations with Russia. He promised to be quite unlike his neo-conservative predecessor Donald Rumsfeld and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton.

Idealists were jubilant, sincerely believing that the advocates of the "American age" theory of changing the world according to American values were ceding their positions in Washington. They thought the hawks were being replaced with more tolerant people respecting other countries' opinions, such as Bob Gates.

The first to fall prey to that illusion were American analysts, who heralded a forthcoming thaw in relations with Russia.

Dr. Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that now that Gates had become part of the administration, an attempt would be made to promote military and military-technical cooperation with Russia.

Unfortunately Cohen was wrong. Washington intends to deploy ballistic missile launchers and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic, and has moved the world's largest Sea-Based X-Band Radar from Hawaii to the Aleutians in the Bering Sea, off Kamchatka.

John Michael "Mike" McConnell, the newly appointed Director of National Intelligence (DNI), has promised to pay more attention to Russia. He has created a "mission manager" position to focus on Russia. The focus of current mission manager positions also includes Cuba and Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and counterterrorism.

And lastly, Gates said last Thursday that the U.S. army should prepare for a war against Russia.

What has happened to the strategic partnership between the White House and the Kremlin?

This is a multifaceted problem, with one core element. The painful American failures in Iraq, the aborted attempt to turn the Broader Middle East into a testing ground for the Western model of democracy, and the flop of the neo-conservative doctrine of "a new American age" are pushing the U.S. administration to search for external reasons for failure, that is, somebody to blame for American mistakes.

In that situation, Russia with its growing economy, an image of the world's largest energy supplier, and the new confidence of its leaders seemed like an easy "clay pigeon" for the American shooting range.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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