Condoleezza Rice was in Poland today for the signing of a missile defense treaty with Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. That treaty, which will place 10 interceptor missiles just 115 miles from Russian territory, elicited a belligerent response from the Kremlin. According to the International Herald Tribune, the Kremlin issued a statement saying any further development of a missile shield in Poland would result in retaliation that goes beyond diplomacy. While stopping short of threatening war – the statement’s (perhaps deliberately) vague language could be interpreted to mean unilateral sanctions or further meddling with Europe’s supply of natural gas – the Kremlin is creating a red line across which they will not permit U.S. and its allies to pass.
For its part, the U.S. says the missile shield is aimed at emerging nuclear powers like Iran. Russia, however, claims the point of the missiles, and the U.S. treaty generally, is to stanch Russia’s influence in a region it had dominated for centuries.
Given Russia’s ongoing, and perhaps permanent, occupation of Georgia, there can be little doubt about the erstwhile superpower’s willingness to use force to defend its interests. Would this willingness extend to invading Poland? Ukraine? The Baltic states? Possibly.
Condoleezza Rice’s reaction could not have been more pointed. “When you threaten Poland, you forget that it is not 1988. It’s 2008 and the United States has a … firm treaty guarantee to defend Poland’s territory as if it was the territory of the United States. So it’s probably not wise to throw these threats around.”
Well, there it is. If the U.S. and Russia fight a war against one another – not a metaphorical war, but a real one, with shelled cities and streaming columns of refugees – in the next five years, historians will point to August 20th, 2008 as the day it started, at least rhetorically.