To understand why the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic have been eager to accept the U.S. proposal to set up missiles interceptors and tracking devices in their respective countries, you have to go back to the Cold War era.
It’s not just that these two countries were under Soviet domination, part of the Warsaw Pact for defense and the Comecon economic organization. It’s the fact that in that situation, they saw the United States as their saviour. Prominent dissidents, especially in Poland, felt the countries of Western Europe, with their large and prominent left-wing parties and peace movements, were not hawkish enough toward the Soviet Union.
When President Bush contrasts the new Europe to the old Europe, he is referring precisely to that difference in attitudes. And it’s that same difference that explains why the two Eastern European governments (though not their populations), have been enthusiastic about NATO, and the defensive systems it will supposedly aim at Iran. In all likelihood the Polish and Czech governments are not more sanguine about Iran than their Western European colleague: their abiding fear is of Russia.
Thomas Friedman’s recent piece gets it right in apportioning blame for the Georgia tragedy, but I disagree that we forced NATO down the throats of Eastern Europe. Although coming two decades after their liberation from the Soviet grip, membership in the North Atlantic club means more, on a certain level, than joining the European Union: the latter represents the fulfillment of a cultural dream: recognition of the East as being an integral part of Europe, while the former represents a guarantee of the East’s survival.
When Condoleeza Rice said in the same sentence that it was absurd for Russia to see the interceptors as an act of hostility toward it, but that she was glad the agreement would also provide for short-range patriot missiles, she was referring to the host country’s fear of its big neighbor.
And yet, not enough attention has been paid by the defense establishment to the fact that Russia is accustomed to having a buffer zone between itself and putative enemies. That was the role played by the countries of Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1989. They were under tight control in order to protect the Soviet Union from Germany, following a war in which the Russians lost more than 13% of its population (compared to less than 1/2 of 1% of the U.S. population). Americans are accustomed to speed - fast-moving events and making decisions quickly. But Russians are probably not. While Russian tanks moved speedily into Georgia, the conflict had been brewing for a decade; it was a question of preparing for the right moment. In the eighties, Mikhail Gorbatchev had floated the idea of a “European House” that would have included the Soviet Union, a suggestion wisely ignored, since it would have resulted in a critical imbalance. It would appear that Vladimir Putin is still trying to counter-balance the weight of the sole European Union, instead of seeing a Eurasian continent in which Russia is one of several large entities, together with the European Union, India, China, and a less well-defined Muslim rim.
My guess is that it will take another decade for fear of encirclement to give way to matter-of-fact cooperation, allowing Bela Rus, Ukraine and Georgia - which it now calls the “near abroad” - to be part of a multi-faceted hemispheric “abroad”, none of which is perceived as a threat.