Russia and the Nuclear News That Wasn't

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Imploding Europe, nuclear Iran, American cities under 'Occupation' the end of the NBA lockout - whatever it is we think of as defining the world in the last week of the second-to-last month of 2011, it’s clear what won’t make the cut: This won’t be remembered as the week Russia threatened Europe with nuclear missiles.

And yet, that's just what happened. In a blast from the Cold War past, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated that if the U.S. and its NATO allies proceed with plans for a regional missile defense system, Russia will put the European anti-missile installations in its nuclear cross-hairs.

What’s astonishing is what didn’t happen next. Aside from a bit of pro-forma push back from U.S. government spokesmen, Medvedev’s missile-flexing was met with a collective shrug. A young U.S. president didn’t channel his inner-JFK to put the nation on alert as he talked Russia back from the brink to an uneasy peace. The Atomic Scientists didn’t reach out to tick forward the nuclear Doomsday Clock to 5 Minutes to Midnight.

Instead, life went on. Americans went right back to the business of turkey, football and a Black Friday of full-contact shopping, while Europe went right on, well … figuring out who foots the bill for Greece and Italy and Spain and Portugal.

Maybe it’s time we noticed.

The same week that Moscow threatened to paint a bullseye on its European neighbors, Russia sent three warships to patrol Syria’s coast, warning the West that any 'foreign intervention' to stop the carnage of the Bashar al-Assad regime could trigger Russian resistance.

At the United Nations, Russian delegates made clear that they would scuttle stronger Iran sanctions, in spite of the new IAEA report that indicates Teheran’s rulers are closer than ever in their quest for a nuclear weapon.

In Venezuela, a Russian bank opened a $2 billion credit line, to go along with $4 billion in Russian arms sales to Hugo Chavez’s armed forces.

And meanwhile, back in Moscow, a national newsreader gave U.S. President Barack Obama an on-air 'middle-finger salute' during the nightly newscast. While Russia’s media remains nominally free, the TV station – according to author Tina Burrett - is majority-owned by a St. Petersburg bank controlled by 'a close personal friend' of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

What’s different about Russia’s post-Cold War anti-American animus is that the feeling is not at all mutual. It’s not that an American newscaster couldn't lower him- or herself to indulge such a gesture - just that, should a bird be flipped, it's likely the object of disaffection would be any one of a dozen public figures before the target would be Putin. Russia is simply not on our radar screen. Case in point: In the recent Republican presidential foreign policy debate, hosted by CNN, the word Russia was uttered just once during the 90-minute debate. If there’s anything worse than unrequited love, it might just be unrequited animosity.

Rather than reciprocate with a Russian 'Reset,' Moscow seems to have chosen to play the spoiler’s role. The playbook is fairly predictable: Keep the Middle East on the boil, fuel a little anti-Yanqui sentiment in the Western Hemisphere, sow a little discord in the Trans-Atlantic Alliance – the better to keep the U.S. distracted and give Russia a free hand as it reshapes its 'Near Abroad' into some semblance of its empire of old. The only catch: The regimes that Moscow may perceive as pawns on its board are in fact international actors with their own interests and agendas. You can wind them up, but you can’t be sure their mayhem will always be aimed solely at the United States.

In Churchill’s day, Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. In our world, that’s Kim Kardashian. Russia is Rodney Dangerfield - with nuclear weapons.

So now comes Medvedev, the cool, professorial, 'pro-Western' Russian leader, threatening to target European nations with Russian nuclear warheads. And yet in capitals across Europe, Russian warheads are nothing compared to the gun the IMF holds to their heads.

The old saying has it that there are only two times to worry about Russia: When it is weak, and when it is strong. Perhaps it's time to add a third: When Russia is ignored.

(Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, seen as arrive at the United Russia party congress in Moscow on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. - AP)

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