One of the signature issues of the Obama Administration, the so called "reset with Russia", is imperiled. Russia has announced that it will target the European bases of the NATO missile shield that is intended to combat nuclear missiles by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.
Although there is no way that the system can be used to neutralize the Russian missile arsenal due to the greater sophistication and greater quantity of Russian missiles, Russia has also threatened to abrogate existing nuclear treaties with the West.
Russia is holding out for a finger on the missile button and an option to veto the firing of the missiles, something to which NATO cannot acquiesce. Nevertheless, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev (elections are scheduled for March) issued a blunt warning "I have given the armed forces the task of drawing up plans to destroy the information and command and control systems of the (US/Nato) anti-missile shield," he said.
"Our NATO partners are not for now showing any readiness to take our concerns about the architecture of the European missile shield into account, something which convinces us that their plans are aimed at Russia."
This recalls the 1970s and 1980s when the Soviet Union threatened to target European countries that hosted American missiles, triggering anti American demonstrations in Europe.
The Obama administration had already made a concession to Russia by dropping the idea that the missile system would be centered in Poland and the Czech Republic, thus embarrassing those governments. Therefore the Obama government had no choice but to announce that it is proceeding with the missile plans despite the Medvedev warning.
Why are the Russians making a fuss now?
For one thing even though the system is intended for rogue states, it may acquire increasing sophistication that can make it a threat to the Russian system. It was the Strategic Defense Initiative popularly known as Star Wars that started an arms race that helped bring down the Soviet system.
The United Russia Party of Putin and Medvedev is facing competition from Russian nationalists. This is ironic as the tandem has been associated with Russian nationalism. Nevertheless there is increasing tension between Russians and Muslim nationalities. Anti -Western saber rattling plays well with this audience.
Finally it may be part of the game of creating a crisis so as to receive a bonus for helping to resolve it. Medvedev, the presumed pro Westerner, plays the heavy in order to allow Putin to step in as the moderate.