WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- To hear generals and political leaders in Washington and Moscow talk, you would imagine that the proposed U.S. ballistic missile defense base in Poland was already built or about to become operational: None of them on either side bothers to acknowledge that it will almost certainly never be built.
Yet the row over what is still a phantom base is poisoning U.S.-Russian relations to an alarming degree.
Last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the country's top general, chief of the Russian General Staff, four-star Army Gen. Yury Baluyevsky, both complained that written proposals about a compromise on the BMD deployment that the U.S. government had sent to Moscow were a backsliding from assurances that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates made in the Russian capital in October.
On Wednesday the Pentagon fired back with Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell flatly telling a news conference there had been no change in the U.S. position.
"Secretary Gates has been very clear about the proposals that he's put on the table for the Russians," Morrell said, according to a report carried by the Voice of America. "He's spoken about it numerous times with you all (the media). I don't think there's any backing away from what we put out there. So, I don't think you'll see an attempt in writing to sort of backtrack from what he's spoken of publicly about the proposals in terms of greater transparency and cooperation that we're putting forth with regards to missile defense in Europe."
The VOA noted that U.S. and Russian defense officials held talks Monday on the latest U.S. BMD proposals, but U.S. officials attending it had not been informed by their Russian counterparts then of the alleged concerns that Baluyevsky and Lavrov later raised.
Gates has revealed that he is ready to give Russia access to the proposed radar base in the Czech Republic and to the Polish interceptor base once it is finished. Gates has also revealed he is willing to keep those facilities offline until there is proof that Iran has finally deployed missiles with the range of hitting NATO member states in Europe.
If the bases are not going to be built all these arguments are just shadow-boxing, like a medieval theological debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. So why are they taking place at all?
The first answer is that, although the Bush administration has only a year left in office and has lost control of both houses of Congress to an increasingly critical and assertive Democratic opposition, it has become so enamored of building the Polish BMD base that its policymakers are unable to admit to themselves that they no longer have any real hope of doing so.
But this attitude plays into the Kremlin's hands. For President Putin has been taking a far stronger anti-American tack on a wide range of issues over the past year, starting with his little-heeded "new Cold War" speech at the annual Munich Security Conference on Feb. 10.
With presidential elections due in Russia next May, Putin appears to be preparing to retain power as prime minister and parliamentary leader of the dominant United Russia Party in the State Duma, while staying within the letter of the law of the 1996 Yeltsin Constitution. Therefore, having strong anti-Western cards to play with the Russian public is more useful for him than ever.
So even if the BMD base in Poland will never be built, the fact that an increasingly isolated U.S. government is still determined to build it plays into Putin's hands in portraying Washington as a threat to Russia.
The Bush administration's policy on the Polish BMD base appears increasingly based on wishful thinking. The Russian position is based on a cynical manipulation of reality for political gain. Neither side seems particularly concerned of the damage it is doing to the bilateral relationship between the world's two dominant thermonuclear powers and the dangers that could pose to the human race.