Russia is test-firing missiles designed to destroy enemy anti-missile defense systems, the latest round of which Russian President Dmitri Medvedev attended personally on Sunday (see article here). This is yet another escalation, albeit not quite as dramatic as, say, the invasion of Georgia, that signals Russia’s intent to antagonize the West and expand its influence through the use of naked force. The weapons system that Medvedev observed tested is the Russian answer to the very anti-missile defense system that the United States is planning on deploying to various Eastern European NATO countries, such as Poland, a plan that the Russians have loudly opposed. The message seems aimed more at those countries that the United States, however, and is intended to convey three things. First, the missile tests are meant to demonstrate that the anti-missile defense systems do not make these former Soviet satellite states invulnerable to Russian aggression. Second, the Russians want to continue to appear bellicose to these countries in order to bring them to a panic-induced simmer. And finally, they hope to make Poland et al wonder, in light of Items 1 and 2, if NATO really has the onions to go to war with Russia over them. The slow and to date impotent NATO handling of the Georgian crisis, of course, is already part of the equation as well, and should add to these countries’ worries.

Of course, one has to consider what this escalation reveals about the Russians. For one, it shows that they have committed to a policy of brinksmanship, in which they will engage in gradually more threatening rhetoric and behavior until their demands are met. Obviously, it also shows that this is a game they think they can win. Indeed, their pieces are arrayed on the chessboard in such a way that they may well be right. Russian support of the Iranian regime by way of weapons sales and assistance with/political cover for their nuclear program is such that they could make a great deal of trouble for the West in that region if they felt so inclined. If Medvedev (read: Putin) feels that the time to make his bed has come, Russia could issue endless vetoes in the Security Council against Western measures, a tactic that they have readily engaged in since the end of the Cold War.

So what do the Russians want? I suppose the best way to answer that question is by asking what they don’t want. They don’t want functional, free market democracies on their borders. They don’t want a further expansion of NATO. They don’t want the West accessing alternate sources of oil or influencing geographic regions critical to their own oil supply. And they don’t want to continue to be seen as a poor, decrepit shell of what was once the mighty Soviet Union. This leads us to the fundamental question that foreign policy gurus are wracking their brains over as we speak: what will the Russians do to stop these things from happening? Will they, for instance, attack the anti-missile defense systems in Poland or the Czech Republic? Would they attack Ukraine? Or are they simply content to hold Georgia hostage until the West makes certain concessions, such as a pledge to halt the expansion of NATO, forfeit the implementation of these defense systems in Eastern Europe, or allow Georgian President Saakashvili’s removal? With American forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political will to engage in hostilities with the former Soviet Union seems flimsy. But caving in to any of the likely Russian demands would be a disaster.

Like everything else, the outcome depends entirely on the presidential election on November 4th. An Obama administration would likely greet Russian demands with far more warmth than a McCain administration would, and would perhaps see a trade as more beneficial in the short run for staving off conflict. But this would of course be folly. Apart from being a text-book case of appeasement (literally taken right out of the Cuban Missile Crisis playbook; just substitute Warsaw for West Berlin), it would also allow the reemergence of a challenger to American hegemony that is in bed with state sponsors of terrorism and lead to the unraveling of NATO. Western, and specifically American promises would become worthless. Countries in hotbed regions around the world that were perhaps on track to undergo democratic reforms in exchange for American aid would once again be given a choice between East and West; and all they’d have to do for Eastern aid is sign on the dotted line and spit on America, no complicated conditions with tit for tat demands for difficult changes. While Senators McCain and Obama may both claim that there will be no return to Cold War conditions, if America acts irresponsibly things could quickly revert to form.

The right answer is to call Russia’s bluff at every turn and hold her to account. You don’t want missiles in Poland? Then do something about it. You want to invade a democratic neighbor? Well you’ll have a hard time holding them down when armed Western troops arrive to deliver aid. You want to stubbornly veto critical sanctions and resolutions in the Security Council? The charter was due for a change anyway, perhaps you’d like to watch the proceedings from the gallery instead? If Russia believes it has nothing to gain from its saber-rattling, then it will have two choices: act on their threats and face either a nuclear conflict or unified global opposition, or grow up and play by the rules.

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