(Margot Light for RIA Novosti) - The agreement concluded between the United States and Poland on August 20th on the deployment of 10 interceptor missiles, part of America's planned Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, was an inadvertent (and possibly unanticipated) result of the Russian-Georgian conflict.
After months of prevarication, the Poles stopped increasing the level of military aid they demanded in return for hosting the missiles, while the U.S., previously reluctant to exacerbate Moscow's hostility to its European BMD plans, agreed that by 2012 it will station a Patriot missile battery in Poland, together with a garrison to support it.
This is not the only unanticipated consequence of the Georgian conflict. In July the Czech government agreed to station a radar missile tracking base - the other European element of the planned BMD system - 90 km from Prague. The immediate reduction in the Russian deliveries of oil to the Czech Republic was widely interpreted in the West as Russia's retaliation against the agreement, despite Transneft's declaration that there were technical and commercial reasons for the cut.
The Czech Chamber of Deputies was initially reluctant to ratify the agreement. However, in the wake of the Georgian conflict, and in response to the threat by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the U.S.-Polish agreement was announced that ‘Russia will be forced to respond, not only via diplomatic demarches', it is highly likely that the Czech parliament will ratify the agreement without further difficulty. The conflict also appears to have made NATO members, previously divided on the question of the further expansion of the alliance to include Georgia, more united in adopting a policy aimed at granting it membership sooner rather than later.
Ever since President Bush revived the plans to develop and deploy BMD, the U.S. administration has repeatedly assured the Russian government that the system is directed not against Russia, but against any ballistic missiles that it fears could be launched by Iran or North Korea.
The Russian response has been consistent - the system is directed against Russia and it undermines Russia's security. In practice, it doesn't really matter whether or not the system is directed against Russia - by responding to the perception that it is, Russian rhetoric and actions produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, the interceptors planned for Poland might be directed against ‘rogue states', but no-one pretends that the Patriot missiles or the stationing of American troops in Poland are directed at any country other than Russia. And the reason why Poland feels that it needs Patriot missiles and American forces is Russia's threat that Poland is ‘making itself a target'.
The West similarly responds to its perceptions of Russian hostility by using rhetoric and undertaking actions that produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Russian insistence that further NATO expansion is unacceptable, for example, routinely produces the response that Russia cannot be allowed to dictate NATO policy. Both Georgia and Ukraine have severe internal problems which NATO, by its own criteria, would normally deem to be too severe to permit membership in the foreseeable future.
However, simply because Russia objects to the two countries joining NATO, they almost certainly be invited to accede to the alliance in the not too far distant future. It similarly often seems that Russia's objections to BMD deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic have simply made the American administration more determined to forge ahead, whether or not these are the most logical locations if the purpose is to defend against missiles launched from Iran or North Korea.
Most analysts agree that it would be a mistake to call the present stand-off between Russia and the West a new Cold War, and it is true that the ideological divide that characterized the Cold War is absent today.
What does resemble the Cold War, however, is the action-reaction nature of the rhetoric and policies that Russia and the West adopt, and the way in which each side says things and adopts policies intended to improve its own defence which are immediately perceived by the other side to undermine its security and demand a response. The result is a spiral that makes both less secure. In the Cold War it led to the arms race.
The danger is that this will happen again. The sad irony is that years before we know whether BMD works, in other words whether it can offer Europe effective protection against a missile attack, it will already have severely undermined European security.
(Margot Light is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics)
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.