In his latest tirade against a U.S. missile defense deployment in Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to again target the continent with his country’s strategic arsenal.

On the eve of the G-8 Summit Meeting, Mr. Putin held a carefully staged dinner with journalists at his country estate outside Moscow. Eight journalists were invited to the dinner, one from each country that will participate in the summit.

The Canadian “representative” was Doug Saunders, European columnist for the Globe and Mail. He was quite willing to print Putin’s vow to re-target Europe with “missiles, including potentially nuclear weapons.” Mr. Saunders describes it as a dramatic escalation of his Cold War-style showdown with the United States.

To underscore his talking points, Putin offered a few dramatic quotes, designed to promote fear (and anti-American sentiment) in various European capitals–and undercut potential support for the BMD deployment.

“It is obvious that if part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States is located in Europe, and according to our military experts will be threatening us, we will have to respond,” he said.
“What kind of steps are we going to take in response? Of course, we are going to get new targets in Europe.”

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But there’s only one problem with Putin’s claim about “re-targeting” the continent.

It’s essentially a bald-faced lie.

Truth is, Russia never stopped targeting Europe (or the United States) with its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Despite the end of the Cold War–and a decrease in the strategic arsenals of both the U.S. and Russia–neither country lost the ability to rapidly target key military facilities and population centers around the world. While the coordinates for those targets may have been erased from Russian and American ICBMs and SLBMs, thanks to the wonders of computer technology, those same coordinates and ballistic profiles can be reloaded in a matter of minutes.

Russia, like the United States, has never abandoned its nuclear targeting program. Target sets and strike options are continually updated for various scenarios, including regional conflicts in Europe. As we’ve noted in recent columns, Moscow is more dependent than ever on nuclear weapons for strategic deterrent, thanks to the implosion of its conventional forces after the Cold War. Russian military journals have talked openly about nuclear employment in conjunction with regional warfare, indicating that plans to “re-target” Europe began long before Mr. Putin’s cozy little dinner.

It’s also rather interesting that Putin equates missile defense with the U.S.’s “strategic nuclear potential.” However, he is correct in noting that the proposed deployment pushes the American (and NATO) tripwires to the edge of Russian territory, and potential strikes against the BMD shield would certainly invite a strong response by the alliance. Putin is also clearly concerned about the long-term potential of missile defense to hold his nuclear arsenal at risk, and render it impotent.

That’s why Moscow is generating its biggest disinformation campaign in 30 years to derail the BMD deployment. The last time we saw a strategic propaganda campaign on this scale was the 1980s, when the Kremlin attempted to dissuade Ronald Reagan from deploying cruise missiles and Pershing II IRBMs in Europe. Russian leaders howled, using rhetoric that was remarkably similar to what we’re seeing from Mr. Putin. Moscow invested heavily in a European peace movement (bound to re-emerge in the coming months), that generated mass protests against the war-mongering Americans and their “nuclearization” of the continent.

In the end, Ronald Reagan was unmoved. Supported by key European allies, the deployment went forward, and Moscow learned that the “cowboy” meant business. The missile basing also led to a ban on intermediate range weapons in Europe, an agreement that would have been unreachable without American resolve.

This time, the stakes are slightly different. The planned BMD radar and missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland are aimed at deterring Iran–a threat that Mr. Putin and his regime have done little to deter. If the Russian leader is truly concerned about missile defense in Eastern Europe, then it’s time to put up or shut up. Support a complete embargo of military, missile and WMD technology to Iran and Syria, in exchange for a delay–and potential cancellation of–the U.S. deployment. Additionally, Mr. Putin must pledge to dismantle his own ABM network around Moscow (in operation for more than 30 years), a system that just happens to protect his capital from a limited missile strike.

If Vladimir Putin believes that Europe should be defenseless against a missile attack by a rogue state, let him led the way. As for Mr. Saunders, he might try putting this Russian “threat” in its proper context.

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