Sign Up

Rumsfeld’s Russian Assault

Do U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s views on Russia as a proliferator trigger a new Cold War?

February 21, 2001

Do U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's views on Russia as a proliferator trigger a new Cold War?

Apparently fed up with Russia’s resistance to the United States’s proposed National Missile Defense system, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld let his frustrations boil over in a television interview on February 14. “Russia is an active proliferator,” the secretary said. “They are part of the problem. They are selling and assisting countries like Iran and North Korea and India and other countries with these technologies which are threatening … the United States and Western Europe and countries in the Middle East.”

Why did Mr. Rumsfeld make these charges? Quite simply, the Defense Secretary is trying to sell the United States and the rest of the world the idea of a National Missile Defense program.

Little wonder then that he also dismissed fears that a national missile defense system would threaten Russia. “Russia’s concern about it is not really serious,” he said, “because they know for sure that they have thousands of these things [nuclear missiles] — and we are talking about [a defense system] dealing with a hand full.”

The producers in the control room knew immediately that they had what all TV talk shows covet — a guest who was making news on this show. In this case, they were right.

The next day, newspapers in Russia, Europe and the United States carried stories under headlines such as London’s Daily Telegraph, “Russia Selling Atomic Know-how, Says U.S.” or The Irish Times’, “U.S. Accuses Russia over Missile Technology Sales,” while Reuters ran with “Washington, Moscow in New Spat.”

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev quickly shot back: “This is rubbish. There is nothing of the sort going on. I find it difficult to react to these ravings.” Valery Manilov, the first deputy chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces, also joined the fray: “These words are on the conscience of Mr. Rumsfeld. One can only make such statements when one has the necessary and incontrovertible proof of what the politician is saying.” He added, “Russia has not violated, does not violate and will not violate its obligations, including in the area of nonproliferation.”

Of course, we don’t know if Secretary Rumsfeld had coordinated his barrage toward Moscow with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But this is certain to make Mr. Powell’s first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov later this month a chillier session than originally planned.

It is also not the approach many experts think will be most productive. Days before Mr. Rumsfeld’s TV appearance, the conservative Nixon Center issued a report on Russia that pointedly advised: “The United States should avoid the counterproductive practice of idolizing — or demonizing — Russia’s leaders.”

Russia’s assistance to Iran is a real cause for concern, as is its desire to sell new nuclear reactors to India. But the U.S. Defense Secretary’s hyperbole fits an emerging pattern of exaggerating threats to justify a predetermined policy. Everything seems designed to “sell” National Missile Defense.

Iran’s civilian nuclear program and its missile program have unquestionably benefited from Russian aid. In fact, last year the Clinton Administration sanctioned five Russian firms for their sales of sensitive technology to Iran.

But Iran’s missile program has been fueled primarily by imports from North Korea, not Russia. The medium-range missile Iran has tested three times (two of which failed) is a No Dong missile bought from North Korea. If North Korea were to end its missile exports, Iran’s program would be crippled.

Interestingly, neither the U.S. Department of Defense nor US intelligence agencies claim that Russia has aided North Korea in recent years, as the Secretary himself claimed. But since North Korea is the current favorite rogue of US policymakers, it helped rhetorically to add them to the pile.

Nor is it true, as Mr. Rumsfeld claims, that the proliferation of missile technologies “across the globe is pervasive.” Apart from the known nuclear powers, there are only three states that have programs to develop a missile with a range of greater than 1,000 km: Iran, North Korea and — if sanctions are ever lifted — Iraq.

There are actually fewer ballistic missiles in the world today and fewer countries trying to build missiles than fifteen years ago when Ronald Reagan launched the Star Wars program. But three states don’t justify a $100 billion-plus missile defense system. To make up for that, the actual threat is stretched to make it seem omnipresent, unpredictable and unstoppable.

This strategy could backfire. Few if any other nations see the threats that the Bush Administration sees. Most of Europe, for instance, is eager to do business with Iran and to purchase energy from Russia. South Korea wants to unite with North Korea, not destroy it. Besides Pakistan, no one in Asia feels threatened by India. But you can see how easy it is for politicians to get wrapped in their own rhetoric.

If other nations come to believe that America’s paranoid vision has twisted its judgment, it will become increasingly difficult to muster the kinds of international coalitions that are critical to almost every U.S. policy. There are real threats out there, but if Americans keep crying wolf, no one may show up when they really need them.