A Foretold Missile Defense Stalemate
Reacting to deadlocked U.S.-Russian missile defense talks, Moscow has stated that it is readying “simple but effective” “retaliatory military measures” in response to the planned U.S.-NATO missile shield. These measures are focused on upgrading the penetrating capabilities of its strategic nuclear missiles and deploying tactical nuclear missiles along Russia’s western border. These measures do not serve Russia’s interests. Rather, missile defense cooperation presents a better opportunity to reduce NATO-Russian tensions and radically transform U.S.-Russian relations.
Notwithstanding the “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow, Russian and American officials have conceded that bilateral talks aimed at resolving significant issues in the missile defense dispute have deadlocked. Moscow alleges that the planned missile shield is intended to undermine Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Washington maintains that the shield, parts of which will be deployed in Romania, Poland, Spain and Turkey, is focused on thwarting a missile attack from the Middle East.
Moscow seeks legally binding guarantees from Washington that U.S. missile interceptors in Europe will not threaten Russia’s nuclear arsenal in exchange for its participation in the missile shield. This is an unrealistic request and one that will not be accepted by the U.S. Senate even if the Obama Administration were to agree.
But Moscow has long known this but insists upon unrealistic demands because the missile shield is widely used domestically to argue that Russia is threatened, encircled and its arsenal constrained. The most Moscow can hope for –which is the most palatable option to NATO members– is separate but coordinated missile defense systems that would not be integrated.
As time passes and Russian intransigence grows, it is increasingly obvious to Moscow that the United States will not heed to Russian demands, and ever more clear to Washington that it will have to move forward with the missile shield without Russia’s blessing. Indeed, Russian officials have stated that even with a legal commitment, the next U.S. president could very well abandon it. Hence, even with legally binding guarantees, Moscow is unlikely to be a cooperative missile shield partner because Russia ultimately distrusts the United States.
Prepared years ago, Russia’s unfolding military response to the missile shield also demonstrates that Moscow is not interested in being a genuine partner. While Russia has joined the United States in reducing the quantity of their strategic nuclear arsenals, Moscow has at the same time focused on improving the quality of its arsenal. As such, Moscow has dedicated itself to modernizing its ballistic missiles and upgrading their capacity to penetrate missile defenses.
For example, Russia is boosting its striking potential by developing new warheads for its intercontinental ballistic missiles, stepping up efforts to deploy the Bulava sea-based missile, and is resolved to build an air and space defense system.
Another key component of Russia’s asymmetrical measures is the deployment of tactical missiles along Russia’s western border. For example, the missile brigade of Russia’s Western Military District has recently obtained Iskander theater missiles which, as stated by the Russian military, have an “ability to overpower the existing and future missile defense shields of foreign states.” In other words, these missiles would ostensibly be used in operations against ground-based targets, namely missile defense components in Poland, Romania and Turkey.
Because Russia is unlikely to ever use nuclear weapons against NATO, its military response to the missile shield instead aims to call America’s bluff on its ability to provide legal assurances and drive a wedge between NATO Allies on the issue of missile defense. While one can hope that this is part of a Kremlin ploy in a pivotal election year, if Russia’s past behavior is indicative, Moscow’s asymmetric response is serious. Indeed, Russia has in the recent past threatened to deploy Iskander missiles and radio jammers in Kaliningrad, just north of Poland and The Baltics, in response to the missile shield. Russia scrapped its plan only after the Obama Administration –in great part driven by a need to obtain Russian support on Afghanistan– decided to replace the Bush Administration’s missile defense plan with a more flexible sea-based system farther from Russia’s borders.
Moscow hopes that its current threats will catalyze another American concession in exchange for Russia’s support on missile defense and other issues of interest to the United States. Ultimately, Moscow’s threats represent a Cold War throwback and serve only to undermine the important advances made in U.S./NATO-Russian relations in recent years. As NATO’s military engagement in Afghanistan winds down, missile defense and the growing threat posed by Iran will emerge as the uniting issue among Allies at a time when the Alliance increasingly seeks a post-Cold War raison d’être. Hence, notwithstanding prohibitive costs or a radical shift in policy, NATO will move forward with the missile shield with or without Russia’s blessing.
Russia has much more to gain from cooperating on missile defense. Russia should use this opportunity to influence the development of the missile shield, and see it as a process to forge strong, enduring U.S./NATO-Russian ties that will survive future challenges. But to advance, Russia and NATO must first reconcile the purpose of a cooperative arrangement beyond just a single third-party threat. The way forward is to build trust through technical cooperation which will help surf the ebbs and flows of subjective estimates of future capabilities, mercurial bilateral relations, and respective electoral cycles.
First, shared efforts on a threat assessment on Iran, a joint data exchange center, and joint missile defense exercises are important building blocks. Second, the dispute over what cooperative missile shield arrangement to build might be resolved by allowing each side to defend its own territory, but with allowances for double protection for some countries near the boundary. Third, it should be agreed at the highest levels that the missile shield will deploy in light of the progress of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This is important because Russia is most concerned by the latter phases of the planned missile shield, in part because it is yet not clear how exactly they will develop.
But Russian demands for a joint missile shield and binding U.S. guarantees are a nonstarter. At core, cooperation must satiate Russia’s desire to be viewed as a partner with the United States and NATO. Indeed, real missile defense cooperation and Western concerns for Iran’s nuclear program are secondary to Moscow’s interest in Russia being recognized as a power to be reckoned with. While it is not yet clear how the missile shield will evolve or how Russia will respond, it is likely that Russia will continue to strike a balance between being viewed as an equal and opposing missile defense as long as possible in order to gain concessions in exchange for its support on issue important to the West.
Moscow’s dangerous missile defense game only serves to undermine the “reset” and be deleterious for Russian interests and NATO-Russian relations. The Kremlin still has time to change course. Let us hope it does so before its retaliatory measures make it politically untenable for NATO Allies to accept a cooperative missile defense arrangement with Russia.