Gorbachev slams – Havel defends – plans for US radar base

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has come out strongly against plans by the US to site a radar base in the Czech Republic – as part of a broader missile defense system in Europe. In an interview for public broadcaster Czech TV on Monday, the former Soviet leader questioned the system was being planned against rogue states like Iran, saying on the contrary it was aimed against Russia and China. His views contrasted those of former Czech president Václav Havel who appeared on the same show. He defended the project – calling it a “first chance” for the Czech Republic to accommodate its ally, the US.

Two legendary political figures, two opposing views on missile defense: on Monday Mikhail Gorbachev and Václav Havel both addressed the issue in separate interviews for Czech TV. Not altogether surprisingly, Mr Gorbachev came out against, making clear just how sensitive an issue missile defense is for Russians: “You believe [the system] will be used against Iran?” the former Soviet leader said, “The whole system is aimed against Russia and China”. His words echoed many months of criticism by the Kremlin, which has so far failed to see eye to eye on the matter with the US. A little earlier I spoke to Oldřich Bureš, a specialist on Russia at Charles University:

“I was a bit surprised by what Mr Gorbachov had to say: not by the fact that he is against the US missile defense system, but by the sharpness of his criticism and the arguments that he used, especially his treatment of the system as ‘offensive’ and the fact he neglected the technical issues. Otherwise, I think his words were fully in line with current Russian foreign policy. I cannot recall any Russian official – past or present – coming out in favour of the system or simply not opposing this project. ”

It is difficult to gauge why Mr Gorbachev reacted as strongly as he did, although the reason could lie in the past. Once again, Oldřich Bureš:

“This is purely speculative but you could argue that the whole project started under Mr Gorbachev’s watch when Ronald Reagan first came forward with the Star Wars defense initiative. Maybe there is some residual from the past which still haunts him.”

Václav Havel,  photo: CTK
On Monday Mr Gorbachev stated repeatedly the US system was aimed against Russia, although by definition the system is one of prevention. Meanwhile, former Czech president Václav Havel, took note of Mr Gorbachev’s words on Monday but said that the Czech Republic should accommodate the US. He also emphasized that whether or not a US base would be stationed in the Czech Republic would not be Russia’s decision.

In his words, at times Russia “seemed to forget where its borders began and ended”, thinking that “what belonged to it once, belonged to it still”.

Most Czechs, polls suggest, are still opposed to a US radar base being stationed on Czech territory but that hasn’t stopped the Czech government from going ahead with the project. Representatives are now in final negotiations and talks with the US are expected to wrap up soon. According to many analysts – both here and abroad - Russia may react with discontent, but there is little it can do to prevent the radar from becoming a reality if the US and the Czech Republic strike a deal.