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Russia's wedge into Europe

Russia has split the West over a planned US missile shield in Eastern Europe. What does it want?

The Soviet Union had a hammer and sickle as its emblem. Today, the more appropriate insignia for Russia might be a hammer and wedge – a symbol for divide and dominate. Or so it sometimes appears in its dealings with the West.

For example, Moscow has succeeded in dividing Europeans so they can't agree on an energy security policy. An at-odds Europe is one with less leverage over Russian oil and gas imports.

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On a different security issue, the Russian wedge has recently caused splits between the US and Europe, and within Europe – not to mention tension between Washington and Moscow.

The issue is a missile defense shield that the US wants to build in countries that once belonged to the former Soviet bloc. It's planning 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic. The system is meant to shoot down ballistic missiles from "rogue nations," principally Iran, that could potentially reach the United States, and also Europe.

Moscow has responded with a sustained, teeth-bearing snarl. It began in February when President Vladimir Putin vigorously denounced the plans as the trigger of an "inevitable arms race." Generals threatened attacks on the sites if they were built, and to opt out of an arms treaty that banned medium-range nuclear missiles. The generals said the real US intention was to shoot down Russian missiles. On Friday, the Duma passed a statement against the dangerous plans.

Russia knows very well that it would not be threatened by the shield. Russian officials have had at least 10 sessions with US officials to learn that the shield is not technically capable of stopping a single Russian intercontinental ballistic missile. Even if it were, Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads. It's hard to see how a largely unproven system with no attack capability and designed to handle only a few incoming missiles could spark an arms race.

Some analysts suggest that a stronger Russia simply enjoys throwing its weight around. There's truth in that. But the reaction to its overreaction indicates Russia has more in mind. Its attack threats have alarmed Czechs and Poles, who appear to be turning against their governments' initial embrace of the plans. European leaders are divided over the wisdom of the shield. The Germans, nervous that Russia is nervous, have pressed Washington to work this out multilaterally, within NATO.

In response, US officials have gone on a whirlwind diplomatic tour to European capitals and Moscow. President Bush called President Putin and that smoothed things a bit. The US has meanwhile suggested that Russia participate in the shield. All eyes are on meetings later this month in which the US will bring the issue to NATO, and the NATO-Russia Council.

If Russia's not militarily threatened, then what does it want?

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That's not a secret, but the US sometimes acts as if it is. Russia wants to be treated as an equal. It doesn't want a briefing, it wants input (though it shouldn't have a veto). And the longstanding issue of NATO expansion on its borders – even putting interceptors and radar in two NATO countries – is one of acute national sensitivity.

Russia has thrown a tantrum unbefitting a nation that wants to be treated as an adult. But the US should have seen this coming – as it hopefully will the next time. •