Monday, June 11, 2007

Putin's Missile Gambit

Welcome to the fight, Vladimir Putin. That's the generous way to respond to the Russian President's surprising, if also somewhat confused, missile-defense offer at last week's G-8 summit in Germany. Mr. Putin wants to join the proposed U.S.-led system for Europe by substituting a Russian radar in Azerbaijan for the planned radar in the Czech Republic.

The underreported implication here is that, in offering to help, Moscow is acknowledging what most of the rest of the Continent figured out long ago: that Iran's nuclear program and growing missile capability are a potential threat. Russians have long said this privately, understanding that the war in Chechnya could take a dangerous turn if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad follows through on his promise to share the "Islamic" bomb and missiles with fellow Muslims.

But Mr. Putin's public stance has recently been that the proposed "third site" for Europe is aimed at Russia, not Iran -- even though the Russians know that the system is designed to defend against one or two missiles launched from the Middle East, not against the thousands of missiles in the Russian arsenal. Mr. Putin's implicit acknowledgment of the Iranian threat constitutes a 180-degree turn.

The Bush Administration's immediate response to Mr. Putin's offer was to say it will study the matter to see if it's technically feasible. Fair enough; no one wanted to blow up the summit. But as a strategic matter, the appropriate response is already evident: The defenses belong in Europe, not Central Asia.