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Getting to “Yes” on Missile Defense

WASHINGTON, DC – The recent visit by Dmitry Rogozin, Special Envoy of the Russian President for Missile-Defense Cooperation with NATO, to the US State Department highlights one of the many obstacles to Russian-US cooperation on ballistic missile defense (BMD). Russia’s foreign and defense ministries have both asserted primacy in the BMD dialogue with the US, but with competing perspectives and priorities. Russia’s diplomats have generally, but not always, adopted a harder line, while Rogozin has been pushing his own BMD agenda.

Another complexity is uncertainty over who will rule Russia. Given the differing views of President Dmitri Medvedev and former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – the main candidates in next year’s presidential election – many Russian bureaucrats prefer to avoid offering bold initiatives regarding BMD or other strategic arms-control issues until they know who the next president will be. Medvedev seems less fearful of NATO than his semi-paranoid predecessor, but Putin has in the past shown surprising flexibility on some strategic issues.

The joint missile-threat assessments that the Russian government recently concluded with NATO and the US revealed much overlap among the participating technical experts, but some fundamental differences between the policy strategists. For example, while Western representatives generally view Iran as an emerging threat, many Russians still insist that the Iranian regime remains a proliferation challenge that can be managed through non-BMD means such as diplomacy and limited international sanctions.

More generally, for reasons of pride and history, many Russians refuse to believe that US policymakers have become more concerned about Iran’s minimal strategic potential than they are about Russia’s robust nuclear forces. They therefore presume that, despite American professions to the contrary, the US seeks BMD capabilities that can negate Russia’s strategic deterrent under the guise of protecting America and its allies from Iran. In bilateral negations with Moscow, US officials have been offering four concrete BMD collaboration projects:

  • Bi-national and multi-national jointly manned centers where Russian personnel can see the non-threatening nature of US and NATO missile-defense activities;
  • Joint Russian-US expert studies regarding how BMD might affect Russia’s nuclear deterrent and what steps can be taken to minimize any problems;
  • Expanded NATO-Russian theater-level BMD exercises that build on earlier collaboration – disrupted by Russia’s August 2008 war with Georgia – and that rehearse how deployed NATO and Russian forces can jointly defend against missile threats; and
  • An underlying legal framework to support these and other cooperative projects.

Russian officials have expressed some interest in these projects (some of which were originally proposed by the Kremlin), but they have insisted on first achieving consensus with the US on underlying strategic principles. Above all, they want the US to sign a legally binding agreement affirming that US BMD will never threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent.

American officials stress that they will not try to negate Russia’s strategic deterrent – an impossible effort, given the size and sophistication of Russian’s offensive nuclear forces. But the Obama administration cannot sign an agreement stating that it will deliberately constrain America’s ability to protect itself and its allies from foreign missile attacks.

Beyond these specific BMD discussions, US arms-control efforts with Russia currently focus on strategic stability talks and other dialogues designed to establish a favorable conceptual foundation for the next round of formal arms-control negotiations. These negotiations might address many of the issues set aside in the rush to conclude the New START Treaty. Besides missile defense, topics could include non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons; reserve nuclear warheads that have been removed from operational arsenals, but have yet to be destroyed; and the placement of conventional munitions on strategic delivery vehicles, such as long-range ballistic missiles, that are normally used to carry nuclear warheads.

These discussions are occurring on a bilateral basis, between Russia and the US, and multilaterally, within the context of the so-called P-5 talks, which involve all five permanent United Nations Security Council members – the only countries that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty legally permits to retain nuclear weapons pending universal disarmament.

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Recent US-Russian dialogues have addressed ways to move from a world characterized by mutually assured destruction to one based on mutually assured stability. These efforts have encountered difficulties. Only a small group of Russian specialists, primarily nongovernmental experts, embrace and employ US strategic concepts. Many Russians still employ negative and outdated Cold War constructs when discussing Russia-US nuclear relations.

Despite these problems, some of Russia’s BMD-related concerns can be addressed through mutually agreed transparency and confidence-building initiatives. Although constraining future US BMD programs with legally binding agreements is politically untenable, US officials could inform their Russian counterparts of their long-range BMD plans without much difficulty.

The US Defense Department regularly includes such data in its budget and planning documents. Support also exists for jointly manned centers, Russian expert visits to NATO BMD facilities, and exchange of early-warning information from Russian and NATO radars regarding potential missile launches.

One hopeful sign is that Russian officials have recently acknowledged the impracticality of the sectoral BMD plan that Medvedev proposed at last November’s NATO-Russian Council summit. The idea was that Russia would protect NATO from attacking missiles traveling over its territory, with the expectation that the alliance would then forego developing defenses capable of engaging missiles over Russia. NATO officials persuasively argued that their collective-defense commitment could not be delegated to a non-NATO member. A more practical problem is that Russia lacks the capability to destroy space-traveling ballistic missiles.

Russian officials need to retreat from their politically impossible demand for legally binding limitations on US BMD. They should instead consider cooperating on concrete BMD projects. Better still, they should redirect their cooperative efforts to easier but important issues, such as securing stability in Afghanistan after NATO’s military withdrawal. In that case, productive collaboration on other issues might become easier.

Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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