The US and its NATO allies remain at loggerheads with Russia over missile defense in Europe, threatening to shutter fledgling NATO-Russian cooperation. However, an agreement on a cooperative missile system would transform the Moscow-NATO relationship from that of military stand-off to substantive, sustainable partnership, Simon Saradzhyan writes for ISN Insights.
Relations between NATO and Russia – which froze in the wake of the August 2008 war in Georgia – thawed in 2010, culminating in the November summit of the NATO-Russia Council in Lisbon. The summit saw Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his NATO counterparts sign off on the Joint Review of 21st Century Common Security Challenges that addresses international terrorism, WMD proliferation – including proliferation of missile technologies, threats to vital infrastructure, dangers emanating from Afghanistan and piracy.
Having endorsed the joint review of common challenges, Moscow and Brussels are now to develop a joint plan of action for combating these threats. Such a plan would amount to a qualitative change from the NATO-Russia Council’s half-hearted cooperation agenda, which had mostly boiled down to exchanges, war games and cargo before the August 2008 crisis, to a real partnership. For that to happen, however, the two sides need to resolve one issue that was supposed to be addressed in the 21st century review, but was deferred: the sources of missile threats and how to deal with them.
When drafting the review Russia balked at identifying Iran as a source of missile threats, so at the 2010 summit the sides agreed to do a separate joint analysis “of the future framework for missile defense cooperation.” The first draft of that analysis is to be completed by June 2011 so that it can be assessed by NATO and Russian defense ministers. Separately, US President Barack Obama and Medvedev agreed at their July 2009 summit to “analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century and to prepare appropriate recommendations.”
Keen, yet still hesitant
So far the sides seem to be keen to complete the joint assessments. The US and Russian government experts have already held several sessions to complete it. And on 26 January, Russian General Staff Chief Nikolai Makarov will meet with senior NATO officials in Brussels to discuss the NATO-Russian assessment.
However, even if the sides manage to paper over differences on missile threats, it remains unclear whether they will be able to come to a substantive agreement on how to deal with these threats jointly. At the Lisbon summit Medvedev proposed that Russia and NATO jointly develop “sector missile defense.” A high-ranking Russian diplomat explained Medvedev’s proposal to the Kommersant: “In addition to disagreeing on sources of missile threats, neither NATO nor Russia is willing to share control of their interceptors. It would be quite different, however, if all sensors, radars and interceptors are oriented towards the external space and are not located at the Russia-NATO division line.”
US and other NATO members have so far reacted cautiously to Medvedev’s proposal, probably reflecting concerns that the sector approach, if accepted, would allow Russia to demand that limitations be introduced on the US’ European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) and NATO’s Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) that will monitor the southeastern sector.
On one hand, it is very difficult to imagine that the White House will agree to any cooperation on missile defense with the Kremlin that would constrain EPAA or ALTBMD, given that ratification of the New START was almost disrupted by Senate Republicans due to precisely such claims of constraints.
On the other hand, Russia insists that it needs commitments from the US and NATO that the planned missile defenses will not target its strategic nuclear forces. “If NATO accepts Russia’s proposal for the sector missile defense, then we will be confident that the European missile defense will not undermine capabilities of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces”, said a high-ranking Russian diplomat interviewed by Kommersant.
And the US and NATO only have a limited amount of time to prove that their cooperation with Russia is meaningful and sincere. Medvedev warned in his November 2010 state of the nation address that if talks on missile defense fail within a decade, “a new round of arms race will start” and Russia will “have to adopt decisions on the deployment of new strategic weapons.” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin echoed his successor in December 2010, saying Russia will beef up and modernize its nuclear forces if it can’t reach a deal with NATO on missile defense.
A way forward
The ten-year window outlined by Medvedev is enough time for the two sides to agree on and implement a vision of cooperative missile defense. Perhaps Medvedev’s sector proposal can be accepted as long as it does not ban the US and NATO from deploying radars and interceptors to target intermediate and intercontinental missile threats that may emerge from countries located south of Russia, including Iran.
In this process, Russia should avoid imposing false red lines as long as EPAA and ALTBMD are capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs, with the exception of SM-3 Block IIB interceptors. And even if SM-3 Block IIBs, which are yet to be developed, are deployed in 2020, as EPAA provides for, several dozens of these interceptors will not be able to undermine the capability of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. The “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist” estimated that Russia possesses 2,600 strategic warheads in its operational arsenal as of 2010 that could deliver a retaliatory strike against the US and NATO countries. For their part, the US and NATO members should avoid beefing up ICBM interceptor forces or deploying radars that specifically monitor Russia.
A cooperative NATO-Russian missile defense will help the participants to substantially advance transition from a military stand-off, institutionalized by decades of nuclear deterrence, to a defense and security partnership that will be based on convergence of their long-term common interests in combating hard security threats, that include not only emerging missile threats, but also nuclear weapons proliferation, WMD terrorism and failed states.
Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He is the author of several papers on security and terrorism.
This article was originally published by ISN Insights. To view the original, please click here.