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Missiles and Mistrust in Europe

At the NATO Lisbon Summit in 2010, the U.S. and its allies expressed the hope that Russia would become a partner in a new missile defense system designed to protect Europe from a nuclear-armed ‘rogue’ state such as Iran.  Those hopes seemed to fade in the months following the summit, and appear to be particularly distant today, after the televised statement issued by Russian President Medvedev on November 23.

Mr. Medvedev’s new threats follow months of diplomacy around the new U.S. anti-missile system, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach, which is a rethink of a previous system developed by the former Bush administration and scrapped in 2009 as soon as President Obama came to office. The Phased Adaptive Approach (which involves, among other things, the construction of missile defense radar in Turkey, and the building of land-based SM-3 interceptor sites in Romania and Poland) was portrayed by the U.S. and several of its allies as less threatening than the previous Bush-era system because it is aimed at short- and medium-range missiles. However, Russia has expressed concern that missile interceptors based in Europe would render its own nuclear deterrent ineffective. If the U.S. goes ahead with the missile shield, Mr. Medvedev argued last week, Russia will deploy its own missiles and could withdraw from the new START nuclear arms reduction treaty. According to President Medvedev, Russia “will deploy in the west and the south of the country modern weapons systems capable of destroying the European component of the U.S. missile shield.” Apparently, one of these steps is to deploy Iskander cruise missiles in Kaliningrad.

Russia has long distrusted the aims of U.S. anti-missile defense. But it was Mr. Medvedev’s comment about the new START treaty, put into effect this year, that suggested a shift to a gloomier tone in what has been a steady stream of warnings out of Russia in recent weeks over the plans for a missile-defense system based in Europe. One of Moscow’s chief complaints is that the U.S. has refused to give Russia a legal guarantee that the missile defense system would never be used to protect Europe or America from Russian nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, senior officials in Washington and Brussels insist that the new missile defense system is specifically designed to ward off threats coming from outside Europe, not to change deterrence arrangements inside Europe. According to the U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Ellen Tauscher, specific engineering choices have been made, rendering the system unable to counter Russian strategic forces (given their location, numbers, and advanced technology).

Ironically, many Russian military analysts also acknowledge that the phased approach to missile defense adopted by the current U.S. administration is less threatening than the Bush Administration’s plans for a shield based on long-range interceptors and radars in Central Europe. They also concede that the system is designed in such a way that even in its final phase of deployment it would not be able to stop a Russian attack. More broadly, several independent experts have argued that, from a technical point of view, the particular type of missile defense planned by the U.S. and its allies would be quite easy to defeat.

The problem is that the current tension between Russia and the U.S. (along with its NATO allies) is grounded in conflicting worldviews and persisting mistrust. This means that it is very difficult to see how any amount of empirical information about the limitations of the missile defense system would persuade Moscow to change its mind on this topic. Russia’s historical mistrust has been fuelled in recent years by a series of acts, ranging from NATO enlargement to the conflict in Libya—where, according to Moscow, the Atlantic Alliance interpreted the UN Security Council resolution in an unacceptably broad manner. In Moscow’s eyes, these acts (among others) clearly demonstrate that the U.S. and its NATO allies cannot be trusted to keep their promises. Furthermore, they allegedly prove the persistence of a long-term U.S.-NATO plot to undermine Russia’s power.

For their part, officials from the Central/East European countries involved in the establishment of the missile defense system have privately indicated that their participation in this project is motivated not only by the perceived threat of missile attack from a ‘rogue’ state, but also by a desire to keep the U.S. committed to European security. To them, this is particularly important in a context marked by Russia’s growing assertiveness on the regional scene—as revealed, for instance, by the 2008 war in Georgia.

This tension over missile defense has fuelled a fresh series of gloomy predictions of a new Cold War. For the time being, at least, these predictions seem exaggerated. Despite all its (considerable) problems and challenges, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and the relationship between Moscow and Washington—although difficult and often tense—remains significantly different from the kinds of relationships that prevailed during the Cold War.

Nevertheless, all this saber-rattling and persisting mistrust will likely limit the possibility of cooperation in areas in which Russia and the NATO allies have significant common interests. It may also increase instability in areas seen by Moscow as belonging to its sphere of influence, in which political dynamics are already quite complicated. The Obama administration’s stated goal of pressing the ‘reset button’ with Russia may still be alive, but developments related to missile defense have just made its achievement more difficult.

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