Russia's Missile Threat Examined

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said he will station missiles alongside Poland if the U.S. places an anti-missile system in the country. The comments are seen as a warning to president-elect Barack Obama. Marshall Goldman, author of the forthcoming book Pretrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia, discusses Medvedev's remarks.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In Moscow yesterday, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev staked out a hard-line stance against the U.S. It was in an address that bespoke Russia's resurgence as a great power, both in content and in style.

Unidentified Announcer: (Russian spoken)

SIEGEL: Medvedev was announced, huge floor to ceiling gold-colored doors opened, and the president strolled into the ornate, white-marbled St. George's Hall of the Kremlin. A gathering of a thousand Russian parliamentarians and other dignitaries heard him promise to base short-range missiles near Poland if the U.S. proceeds with basing an anti-missile system there.

Medvedev's sponsor, Vladimir Putin, who is now prime minister, sat in the front row. Russia expert, Marshall Goldman, was reduced to following it all from Cambridge, Massachusetts. But he's very insightful from long distance, just the same. Marshall, first, the Medvedev speech, as an event; what was noteworthy about it?

Dr. MARSHALL GOLDMAN (Professor Emeritus of Economics, Wellesley College; Associate Director of the Harvard Russian Research Center; Author, "Pretrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia"): Well, it was pomp and circumstance of the sort that we haven't seen. It's - you know, during the Yeltsin years, the country was falling apart. It was split up into 15 different countries. The economy collapsed. And what Medvedev is saying, look, we're back. Kind of picking up from were Putin just left off. We're back. We're an imperial power. And get out of the way.

SIEGEL: Putin was there. So was the Orthodox patriarch.

Dr. GOLDMAN: Everybody was there, including the president of Chechnya. I mean, they brought them all there for this thing. They had to fly in specially. It was an amazing performance. And Medvedev is rather small in stature. And to see him, kind of, parade down there looking - knowing that the television cameras were focused on him gives you this feeling of a small man walking down a hall knowing that everybody is paying attention. It's - I almost have the feeling like he's playing house, playing grown up.

SIEGEL: Well, the message: We have no inherent conflict with the American people, but... What did you read in to that?

Dr. GOLDMAN: Well, but look, we're going to tell you, you better not put those missiles in Poland. And I think, for me, the bigger question is, why did he do it now? Why didn't he wait? Why didn't he communicate privately with President-elect Obama?

SIEGEL: Medvedev and the Russians have, in effect, made Joe Biden look prophetic in saying that there would be a crisis testing the mettle of Barack Obama. If this is it, Obama might feel obliged to be especially tough in responding to it, do you think?

Dr. GOLDMAN: I think so. I think that he's got to really demonstrate his strength and his willingness to stand up, in a way. For me, it's like when I was a kid. We would have these confrontations with some of my friends, and we would say who's chicken and who's not chicken and who's going to stand up and defend themselves. And I think this puts Obama in an uncomfortable position, one that he would rather not start with. He's got other issues that are of more concern to him, including his domestic economy.

SIEGEL: Is there an asymmetry here? Is the idea of an anti-missile system in Poland much, much more important to the Russians than it is to us? Do they actually really regard this as a threat to their most basic national interests?

Dr. GOLDMAN: They certainly do. After all, we are a continent away, an ocean away, and they see this as in their backyard. I mean, the missiles that Medvedev promises to install are on Russian territory. It's a kind of an enclave. It's Kaliningrad, which used to be part of Germany, part of Prussia. So the Russians are saying, OK, we can really threaten Europe. It's the Europeans who are going to be most concerned about this.

But what Medvedev should have done is to talk with Obama privately and - because the Democrats have not been entirely happy with the idea that President Bush was installing missiles. And I think many Democrats saw that as a provocative act. But right now, it's no longer just a provocative act. It's one where the Russians aren't going to try to say, we'll match your bluff, and it's something I'm not happy with.

SIEGEL: Marshall Goldman of Harvard University and Wellesley College. Thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Dr. GOLDMAN: Thank you, Robert.

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