In The American Prospect, Robert Farley, a professor of international relations, helpfully cuts to the core of the USA-Russia missile defense dispute. It’s pretty much all kabuki, but the underlying issues are important:
States deploy rhetoric for a reason, so what are Russia and the United States trying to accomplish with all of these comments? The Russian threats against NATO must be understood in the context of the larger project of intimidation against virtually all of Russia’s neighbors. The Kremlin throws weight around both because intimidation results in real security and financial benefits, and because it believes that it ought to have a quasi-imperial sphere of influence. Even those friendly with and dependent on Russia aren’t immune, as President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus recently discovered. In the last several years, Russia has proven willing to play hardball with its smaller neighbors over territorial disputes, energy deals, and even domestic political arrangements. In most of these disputes Russia has enjoyed a high degree of success, and even in cases that haven’t resulted in direct capitulation, the effects of pressure and intimidation have modified behavior.
It’s also possible that the Russians are genuinely concerned about the ABM bases in Eastern Europe, not so much for what they’re capable of now than for what they might mean in twenty years. Given enough time and money, the United States can probably make a missile defense system work. In the 1980s, the Soviets were quite concerned about the Star Wars system despite its lack of technical success, and many of the people in the Kremlin then remain important now. The U.S. contention that the shield isn’t aimed at Russia is only halfway believable, given that the interceptors presumably won’t be programmed to avoid incoming Russian ballistic missiles. The bases in Eastern Europe also represent a focus of U.S. military activity close to Russia’s borders; successful resistance to Russian intimidation on the part of Poland and the Czech Republic could further convince Russia’s closest neighbors to seek U.S. military protection and NATO membership. Since it’s extremely unlikely that Poland or the Czech Republic take the Iranian threat very seriously, their thinking on this issue probably mirrors the Russians’; that the ABM sites represent a U.S. commitment to protect Eastern Europe both militarily and politically from Russia.