international analysis and commentary

Russia, the West and the argument over missile defense in Europe

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The argument over missile defense sites in Europe reflects the hindrances that prevent Russia and the West from building a constructive and mutually inclusive relationship. This controversy reveals a lack of mutual trust and understanding between the sides that are not yet able to overcome the logic of their Cold War mentalities. The relationship is still based on a zero-sum rivalry, rather than a positive-sum cooperation. At the same time, the problem of missile defense requires bold decisions that will either bring Russia and the West closer to becoming allies, or will push them further apart for a long period of time. 

There is no missile defense system capable of defending Russia or the US from a massive nuclear strike. Prominent Russian experts (Yuri Solomonov, General Viktor Esin and General Vladimir Dvorkin, among others) assert that the current or future US missile defense systems will not significantly affect Russian nuclear deterrence capability.

At the same time, the US Missile Defense Agency’s claim that the interceptors deployed in Poland will not even have the theoretical capability to reach Russian ballistic missiles is incorrect. Such capability exists, even though it does not mean that American interceptors can destroy advanced Russian missiles that are traveling in a cloud of decoys. The new system can affect Russian nuclear deterrence capability, but it cannot neutralize it.

The fact that both sides are not completely transparent about their fears and intentions undermines the credibility of the overall negotiation process. For instance, it is not clear why the US is so staunch on developing missile defense in Europe. The scale of the proposed European missile defense shield does not correspond to the potential threat from Iran and is not well-configured to counter it. NATO counties regarded the European missile shield as a way to bring them closer to each other, and for several Eastern European countries its deployment would signify a final break with Russia. The reasons why the US is pursuing the project are more obscure.

In turn, Russia cannot formulate a cohesive opinion on who its potential adversary is. On the one hand, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in his previous capacity as President, argued for a partnership with Europe designed to pursue the general goal of “modernization”. On the other, Russian military doctrine still lists the US and NATO as Russia’s top potential enemies, and Russian Air and Space defense forces will be modernized to defend the country against a potential missile attack from the West. In contrast, the latest US Nuclear Posture Review lists the spread of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation as the greatest threats to US national security. The report says that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically”. It might even seem that Russia feels uneasy that it is no longer regarded as the biggest threat. This can explain some of the psychology that surrounds the issue.

The status of a nuclear superpower is still very important for Russia, and the country has felt vulnerable and isolated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was willing to side with the West, but Russia’s painful economic transition made such a move increasingly complicated. With Vladimir Putin coming into power, Russia reverted to isolationism. At the same time, the West is diverse, but united around common values, while Russia’s allies are scarce and usually driven by short-term interests. As a result, Russian foreign policy lacks strategy and is often driven by emotions.  

For instance, a significant part of the Russian elite is arguing for an alliance with China. Nevertheless, it is evident that China and Russia will not become allies on equal footing. Moreover, China is not very interested in an alliance with Russia, and in any case would like to drive a wedge between Moscow and the West. Indeed, the European missile defense shield might represent an element in the global American plan to deter Chinese nuclear capability: when President Medvedev proposed to build a joint missile defense system with NATO on the so-called “sectoral” principle, the Chinese leadership reacted with concern. In the aftermath, the Chinese were glad that the plan was ultimately rejected. It seems that the West and Russia do not understand that both Iran and China are actually interested in them being divided and thus weaker.

Missile defense today is only sensible in terms of rebuffing limited strikes from countries that cannot equip their missiles with advanced technology. This can include provocative strikes made by terrorists or by countries with limited capabilities such as Iran and North Korea. According to experts, in 10-12 years Iran will be able to develop medium–range missiles that can reach Spain, Norway and Krasnoyarsk. These threats are much more real to both Russia and the West than the threat that they pose to each other. Therefore, it is in the mutual interest of both Russia and the West to cooperate, and a form of coordination in such a delicate field might then yield results in other spheres of mutual concern as well.  

Cooperation on the missile shield would require more trust and better communication. Russian foreign policy continues to be “multi-vector” – which often means ill-defined – but the US position lacks transparency. The negotiation is driven by emotional exchanges, as when the presumptive Republican nominee for US President, Mitt Romney, called Russia “America’s number one geopolitical foe”, while Putin stated that “the problem of the missile defense shield will not be solved regardless of whether Obama is re-elected or not.”

Both Russia and the US have already proved their ability to cooperate by adopting the New START Treaty (on strategic nuclear weapons) and by agreeing to cancel Russian deliveries of the S-300 surface-to-air systems to Iran. The US could go further, for instance by adopting the proposal (advanced by General James Cartwright) to reduce its Cold War nuclear arsenal, so that it would not pose even a theoretical threat of a first disarming strike against Russia. The rwo sides could also revamp the old idea of merging their early warning facilities and gradually expanding cooperation to other spheres. By making mutual concessions, each side could attain significant benefits.

Russia, in particular, has much to lose from a phase of confrontation with the US: Russian defense acquisititon plans are already diverting funds from key projects in infrastructure, healthcare and education. At the same time, Russia would continue to be diplomatically isolated and thus weak. The US, in turn, would lose a potentially pivotal partner while bearing the not insignificant financial costs of confrontation .  To avoid these scenarios both parties need to recognize that there are no longer any fundamental reasons for them to fear each other. It is time for Russia and the US to move beyond the Cold War vestige of mutual nuclear deterrence.