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Eric Margolis: US missile policy stoking Russian nationalism

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VOICE OF CARLO BASILONE: Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out this week at Poland and NATO-aspirant Ukraine, warning that he would not tolerate deployment of US missile defense systems in either country. Putin said that Russia will counter with its own missile system.


Moscow, Russia
February 12, 2008

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: Not only to talk about it, it is scary even to think about it, that in response to such deployment, possible deployment of such installations on Ukrainian territory – and theoretically such deployment cannot be excluded – Russia will have to aim its missile systems at Ukraine. Can you imagine it, for only a second? This is what worries us.


We spoke to The Real News analyst Eric Margolis.

ERIC MARGOLIS, THE REAL NEWS ANALYST: Well, Putin’s outburst in Moscow really is symbolic of the growing anger and frustration that Russia has felt for the last few years as NATO has steadily advanced its borders eastward and in fact has come right up, pushed right up against Russia’s borders, and is now talking about enlisting Ukraine in the NATO alliance. You know, when the original arms accords were signed back before the fall of the Soviet Unions and thereafter, there was a tacit understanding that NATO would pull in its horns and not challenge Russia and eastern Europe. And when Russia pulled out of eastern Europe, there was an understanding that NATO would not move in, at least not very quickly. But this has not happened. In fact, NATO has moved into eastern Europe, and it’s taken over places that are very provocative to the Russians. I mean, the Baltic states, for example, Romania, Bulgaria. There’s talk about bringing Georgia and the Caucasus into the alliance. And now Ukraine and Poland, a traditional enemy of the Russians. The Russians have been getting angrier and angrier as NATO’s been moving in. And in my own view, NATO’s, the US position has been quite provocative and heedless of Russia’s interests, of its history, and of its sensibilities.

BASILONE: Trying to bring in the Ukraine into NATO with the Russian Black Sea fleet in Savastopol. Realistically how likely is it to actually happen? And do the people of the Ukraine, including the Ukrainians in the West, do they really want to join as opposed to just some politicians?

MARGOLIS: Well, that’s a very good question. The Ukrainians appear to be split down the middle, with the western part of Ukraine favoring closer integration with Europe, which would help them tremendously economically, and with the eastern portion of Ukraine wanting to stay closer to Russia, not wanting to be part of the NATO alliance. On top of this, these growing tensions, and these are unnecessary tensions. These are really custom-made tensions that we’ve created on our side. Then there’s this whole daft plan by President Bush to put anti-missile, missile interceptor systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, which are designed against long-range Iranian missiles, ICBMs with nuclear warheads, which don’t even exist. It’s a bizarre fantasy right now. And it’s caused enormous distress in Russia, which has overreacted, and it sees this thing as the harbinger of more American anti-missile systems and perhaps offensive missile systems being planted in eastern Europe. And most lately there’s talk of putting them into Ukraine, which has just driven the Russians furious. So no wonder the Russians are very angry. And from the view of Moscow, we are sort of closing in on them. US forces are now based in central Asia, Russia’s soft underbelly, in the Baltic, right next to St. Petersburg on the eastern borders of Russia. Russia’s getting the feeling that NATO is increasingly hostile. And what we have done is to reawaken all the traditional xenophobic, anti-western, greater Slavic feelings in Russia to bring out the worst side of the Russian character and to pull the rug out from under the pro-Europeans in Russia who wanted better relations and closer integration.

BASILONE: You mentioned President Bush. Is it just Bush? Or would another president in the US, including John McCain, continue this kind of provocation, if you want, of Russia?

MARGOLIS: It depends on who’s elected. I think if it’s McCain, he definitely would continue this. He has stated that he’s very much in favor of a continuation of America’s militarized foreign policy and taking a very hard line abroad, using America’s military might, such of it that remains, to intimidate or positively motivate other foreign countries. He would be a confrontationalist. If Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama come in, I don’t think either of them would be foolish enough to continue this unnecessary, this reckless policy, or to promote this idea of anti-missile defenses against missiles that don’t exist.

BASILONE: Medvedev: will there be a major change from what Putin has been doing? Or do we know?

MARGOLIS: We don’t. Of course, we don’t have a crystal ball. But from all the evidence, it looks like there will be no change of policy, because Mr. Putin has made clear that he’s going to stay somewhere just to the sidelines, just off camera, pulling the strings and influencing policy. Mr. Medvedev will become the new leader of Russia, as a faceless, colorless, bland individual who has no particular track record, doesn’t seem to have much personality of his own. And really reminds me, when I look at him, like he’s Putin’s son, where, like, almost like a Tsar has appointed the Tsarevich to take over Russia, but Papa is going to stand behind the curtain and whisper into his ear. Russians are probably happy with this. Their very polls show that over 70 percent support Putin, maybe more. They want more of the same. They’re very happy with an aggressive, muscular foreign policy, with the reassertion of Russia as a great power. They feel its nose was ground into the dirt in the last decade. They want to see a tough Russia talking the way it did in the past. They want to be proud of their country. They’re very nationalistic, hyper-nationalistic people. And they’re happy to have Mr. Putin there. Whatever you call him, you know, it reminds me of when Deng Xiaoping, the Great Deng in China, ruled China, he was in effect an emperor; he never had a title. The only title he used was his only official title was chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association. And everybody in China knew who the boss was. And I think this is what’s going to happen with Putin.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Eric Margolis is an internationally syndicated columnist and renowned book author. He’s a veteran Korea-watcher who specializes in north Asian military/strategic affairs. He’s been all over the DMZ and produced his documentary there last year featuring a segment from Panmunjom on the DMZ. Two special areas of focus:  1. What would a war actually look like if one erupted?  2. The geopolitics of the region – the Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, the US.  Eric was a regular columnist for Japan's Mainichi Shimbun and is a long-time member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.