Russia's Perception of a US Missile Shield
While the debate is heating up over U.S. plans to install a protective missile shield in Europe against the potential threat from destabilizing states, Russia continues to oppose those plans strongly. The recent visit of the U.S. Defense Secretary to Moscow has not taken away Russia’s anxiety. What threatens Russia so much?
It would be unfair to say that U.S. plans to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, at a cost of $3.5 billion, simply concerned Russia; they provoked a wave of indignation across all of Russian society, ranging from ordinary citizens to the country’s political leaders. In fact, no other foreign policy issue in recent years has united so many representatives of various political and academic groups to say the famous Russian “Nyet!” to U.S. plans. Russians find the deployment of these American systems dangerous for so many reasons that each political side or academic school can choose its own way to explain to the Pentagon why they won’t stand the presence of U.S. missile systems in Europe.
To categorize Russian issues, it would be better to divide them not according to various political preferences - it would only reflect Russia’s internal political game - but to outline five groups of issues. They are: technical, political, diplomatic, economic and strategic.
Technical issues concern solely the nominal parameters of newly deployed U.S. missile and radar systems. Russians doubt that the technical characteristics of those systems are exclusively defensive, and that there is no technical proof that they are incapable of being used for offensive purposes if needed. The technical specifications of the launching silos are very close to those of offensive systems rather than defensive, argue Russian military specialists. Thus, they could pose a direct threat to Russia.
Another technical issue is the fact that, according to Russian estimates, the anti-ballistic missiles which are being used in this U.S. system won’t be able to stop Iran and effectively protect Europe from sudden attack. Moreover, according to all estimates Iran cannot even manage to produce medium-range missiles. Her scientific, technological, and industrial level will not allow it to build nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the near future. Even if Iran somehow obtains ICBMs, why would it wish to attack the United States? Taking into account the oddity of the Iranian regime and ideology, there are no grounds to think that it consists solely of suicidal fanatics. It is perfectly obvious that a single strike against the United States or Europe would cause, quite legally, a massive retaliation that would completely destroy Iran. And it would be even more absurd to believe that Iran could achieve nuclear parity with the U.S., Russia, or even China.
Thus the newly deployed missiles’ technical characteristics and potential enemy – Iran – are viewed in Russia as imaginary, unreal, and dreamlike; Russians don’t have any other option but to suppose that the European missile shield is a part of global U.S. system to halt Russian nuclear potential. While ten interceptor missiles in Poland are, of course, not enough to destroy all Russian nuclear potential, a global U.S. system with similar missiles being deployed worldwide would be a serious threat to Russia’s defense strategy.
Other experts argue that the radar system that the United States is planning to deploy in the Czech Republic is far more dangerous for Russia than the ground-based interceptors in Poland. The radar will cover Russia's territory up to the Urals. It will be able to detect nuclear missile launches and provide this information to the global U.S. anti-missile system.
Political issues seem even more painful to Russia’s elite than the actual technical abilities of the U.S. European missile shield. The Russian elite is concerned with continuing unilateral steps of “Comrade Wolf” as President Putin put it in the 2006 State of the Union Address. After the collapse of the bipolar world order, Russia has strived to develop a multipolar world; that is the official aim of Russian foreign policy. But the U.S. has done its best to establish ‘Pax Americana’ worldwide – a scenario rejected not only in Russia.
The ABM shield is viewed in Europe as a routine act of American unilateralism. The fact that the Russians were again handed a “fait accompli” undermines not only Russian reputation in international affairs but is extremely hurtful for Russian politicians when they are to face their voters in the upcoming 2007 parliamentary elections. They had to react vigorously against the American plans to gain popularity in Russia, not caring much about reality on the ground.
But for Russia’s top elite, having become stronger in recent years, the way the U.S. promotes the European missile shield is also highly distasteful. Following the logics of the Soviet-American talks and consultations on defense issues, Russians were expecting their position at least to be heard and taken into account. But until Russia started to express its vigorous disagreement with U.S. plans, Washington took no steps to create even the impression that they cared about their “strategic partner” in any non-proliferation issues or the war on terrorism.
Further, the Russian political elite again found itself disappointed with the role of the NATO-Russian Council (NRC). While it has been proclaimed as a valuable instrument of dispute resolution between Russia and NATO states, not until recently has this question been put on the NRC agenda.
In sum, Russia’s political elite is not unanimously against the U.S. missile shield, since its technical capabilities are still very weak. They are, however, distressed with the way they were treated over the issue. Since Russia is an integral part of European and global security, she must be treated according to her status. More worryingly, the European missile shield might be also viewed as a step back towards Cold War style East-West confrontation. For many reasons, this scenario is disadvantageous for both sides, yet unfortunately some experts cannot exclude it.
Economic issues are also a matter of concern in Russia. Some experts are afraid that American ABM plans are a way to halt Russian economic growth. The United States wants to repeat its successful strategy of the 1980s, when it forced Moscow to spend huge sums from the state budget to respond to an imaginary threat. Today, it is common knowledge that the Star Wars project provoked Russians into a new wave of military spending instead of solving growing social problems. Almost a quarter-century has passed since the United States first announced Star Wars, but with all its enormous industrial, technological, and scientific might, the U.S. has managed to create almost nothing of what it announced under Reagan. Unfortunately, Soviet strategists did not understand then that the supposed ABM program was a fantasy. While the U.S. was a long way from developing a combat laser, Moscow feverishly rushed to parry the threat, allocating giant sums of money and ruining both its own economy and, in the long run, the whole Soviet regime.
Today, Russian experts are afraid that history could repeat itself. The Russian Defense Ministry is the biggest recipient of federal budget expenditure. Russia's defense spending is growing at an average rate of 30% per annum. And while the Russian Defense Ministry has to improve the efficiency of its spending to counter real rather than illusory threats, the current American plans might boost Russian military spending further. This would be useless and inefficient in the long-run. The current positive situation in the oil and gas sector might make Russian authorities implement long-term advanced military programs, risking social stability and economic growth if the oil price were to fall.
Diplomacy - the game over the ABM issue began long ago, and is a part of the Cold War heritage. But the present deployment of U.S. systems was tied by Russia to a number of treaties, on which it may now declare a moratorium.
The most vigorous response first proposed by the Russian military was to declare a moratorium on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated nuclear and conventional ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300-3,400 miles). This document has become a key element of stability in Russian-American nuclear dialog, as it has eliminated the most risky and unstable missile systems. Their redeployment would be a brainless decision. Luckily, this has been quickly understood in Russia too; there is no further talk of such a moratorium.
President Putin found, however, another way to retaliate against U.S. plans. He proposed the idea of a moratorium on the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which is a post-Cold War adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), signed on November 19, 1999. The main difference with the old treaty is that the ceilings given to NATO and the Warsaw Pact have been replaced with territorial ones. The Adapted Treaty is supposed to enter into force when all 30 states involved ratify the agreement. But until now only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine have done so. The treaty has not been ratified by a single NATO country.
NATO member-states link their ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty to the fulfilment of the political responsibilities Russia undertook at the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Summit (the so called "Istanbul commitments") to withdraw her forces from Georgia and Transdnestria, a breakaway region of Moldova. Russia has greatly condemned this linkage, which it considers false, and has on many occasions questioned the relevance of the Adapted CFE Treaty, given its continued non-ratification by NATO states.
Russia may now declare a moratorium more favourable to herself; the treaty has flank limitations, but they mainly affect Russia. In practice, not a single one of the 30 Treaty signatories has as many of the five types of weapons covered by the treaty as its quota allows (four countries - Iceland, Kazakhstan, Canada and Luxembourg - have no such weapons at all). The four NATO countries that are outside of the CFE treaty have purely symbolic armed forces, especially the Baltic republics. All three of them combined have only three tanks (Latvian T-55s) and four aircraft (Lithuanian L-39s). In nominal terms the treaty does not much concern any country.
We should remember however that it was not only the milestone international accord to end and bury the Cold War; the Adapted CFE must be viewed in the general strategic framework of arms control and arms reduction, not only in Europe but world wide.
When it comes to the strategic angle, both the U.S. missile shield and Russian plans to impose a moratorium on the CFE could clearly have tremendous consequences; for example, eroding the whole post-Cold War paradigm.
The arms control issue is not as easy as it seems; it has the greatest implications for global affairs. Chekhov famously said that if there is a rifle in the first scene of a play, in the second it cannot help but shoot. The same applies to world politics. Twice, before 1914 and 1939, world leaders failed to establish an effective system of arms control and arms limitation and we all know to what consequences that led. Today, to my mind, we witness again the hypocrisy of many politicians around the globe, who believe that by cheating with arms control they bring peace to their land; in fact, the erosion of the whole arms control system is a global failure that will echo in our near term future.
On December 13, 2001, George W. Bush gave Russia notice of the United States’ withdrawal from the ABM treaty, in accordance with the clause that requires six months notice before terminating the pact. This was the first time in recent history that the United States has withdrawn from a major international arms treaty. Of course it did not pose an immediate threat to world stability, but it was the first step towards eroding it, since the ABM Treaty was a keystone arms control document which limited the strategic nuclear ambitions of the U.S. and Russia.
It is important to mention that the U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty provoked rogue states to develop their nuclear programs further. Russians and Americans often forget that their nuclear relations no longer concern not only them; they have broader implications for the rest of the world. When we see how the Non-Proliferation Treaty is eroding today, and how the nuclear appetites of the developing states are growing, we must realize that the U.S. and Russian failure to establish fruitful cooperation in this sphere is partly to blame.
Today, the dispute between the U.S. and Russia is also eroding the system of conventional arms limitation treaties, and even the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Step by step, it all brings the world closer to a state of chaos; a chaos with a nuclear threat closer than that seen during the Cold War.
So as not to fall prey to sheer pessimism, it is important to outline that this situation creates options for cooperation to stop the disaster, for both the U.S., Russia, and European allies. Perhaps it will require a change of thinking in both the White House and the Kremlin, but the two greatest nuclear powers are bound to avoid global nuclear holocaust.
Some recommendations for them might be as follows:
- Both the U.S. and Russia should realize their global responsibility to protect the whole world from nuclear Armageddon
- Having stopped intrigues over the recent U.S. plans, both sides should resume broad dialog on non-proliferation and arms control
- Both the U.S. and Russia should continue work on the limitation and reduction of their own nuclear arsenals, rather than developing a new generation of destructive systems
- As it is very difficult to build a unified global ABM system, Russia and the U.S. could think of sharing regional responsibility for sudden attacks from any of the rogue states.
- Both sides should continue cooperating in the deployment of limited-theatre ABM systems. A limited ABM system would be designed for protection against medium and short range ballistic missiles; the likelihood of their use is quite high. The United States is stepping up tests of Lockheed Martin's mobile THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence). It may be flown by aircraft to any spot where there is a risk of a missile attack.
- Both sides, along with their European and Asian allies, must reinforce non-proliferation treaties. Only when the interests of all parties are aligned can the NPT become an effective instrument to halt destabilizing nuclear ambitions.