December 7, 2007 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Missile mistrust

In a way, Russian-American relations since the fall of the Berlin Wall haven't changed that much. During the Cold War, the security relationship was characterized as one of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Today, it's still MAD -- but now it's mutually assured distrust.

And nothing is making ties more suspicious -- and contentious -- than the simmering disagreement over Washington's plans to put a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe to counter the growing Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear threat.

Although the Kremlin agreed to end the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with the signing of the 2002 Moscow Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a significant change of heart recently. Indeed, Putin drew parallels at an October European Union (EU) summit between the plans for an Eastern European missile shield and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which saw the two sides go to the brink of nuclear war. This came the same day the commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, warned that Moscow could restart the production of short- and medium-range missiles on short notice if directed, raising fears of an arms race.

Russia's new assertiveness on the world stage and Cold War-like rhetoric about missile defense is sending chills up the spines of politicians, security specialists and publics across the U.S., Eastern Europe and NATO.

AMERICAN ANXIETY

Despite the Kremlin's growling, the Bush administration sees the deployment of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic -- the "Third Site" -- as critical to blunting the growing Iranian threat, and protecting the homeland and its European allies. Indeed, President Bush said in a speech on the issue at the National Defense University in late October: "The need for missile defense in Europe is real and, I am convinced, is urgent."

The matter is a race against the clock. According to congressional testimony, the U.S. intelligence community believes Iran could have an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the United States and a nuclear weapons capability by 2012-2015. According to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), if the green light were given today by all concerned to break ground for the Eastern European missile-defense sites, the earliest the system could be fully operational would be 2011-2013.

That's pretty tight.

These estimates, of course, don't take into account the possibility of a Manhattan-Project-like effort by Iran, which could decrease the time needed to reach initial operating capability for either the missile or nuclear program. Nor do these dates take into account outside assistance, which might accelerate both programs. The most likely candidates for making that happen are North Korea (both missiles and nuclear) or the remnants of the Pakistani A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network.

RUSSIAN REGRET

Russia strongly objects to the U.S. proposal to put a high-tech X-band radar in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland, claiming the defensive system would cause an "arms race" and turn Europe into a "powder keg." The Kremlin also insists the limited system would undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent, despite the fact that a Russian land-based nuclear strike on the U.S. wouldn't be launched over Poland, but over the North Pole or Iceland and Greenland.

As a matter of fact, the MDA insists the kinetic kill vehicle must intercept the warhead at speeds of up to 15,000 mph to destroy the target, because it doesn't contain high explosives -- and just isn't fast enough to catch a Russian ICBM in a chase scenario.

Moreover, although Moscow should be concerned about Tehran's development of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons because of Russia's proximity to Iran, the Kremlin insists that it isn't convinced of a growing Iranian threat. Interestingly, Moscow didn't object to the U.S. decision to deploy missile-defense sites at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base and Alaska's Fort Greely, directed at the still-evolving North Korean threat.

Apparently more fearful of the radar's ability to see into Russia than the interceptors in Poland, Putin suggested to Bush this spring that the U.S. and Russia share an early-warning radar at Gabala, Azerbaijan, instead of building the Czech radar. Of course, the Soviet-era early-warning radar won't come even close to matching the X-band radar's tracking capabilities, as evidenced by a visit of American officials and techs to the Azerbaijani site.

Putin also suggested the U.S. put its Eastern European missile defense interceptors in Iraq, Turkey or even at sea aboard Navy Aegis ships to defend against the Iranian missiles in their early phases of flight, if the U.S. felt so threatened.

Not getting any traction on those offers, Putin made another counteroffer while with Bush in Maine in early July: a regional missile defense with a radar facility in southern Russia under the control of the NATO-Russia Council.

In October, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a rejoinder of his own, offering that the Eastern European system wouldn't be activated until the U.S. and Russia could agree that an Iranian threat existed. Hearing howls of protest from inside the Beltway about leaving U.S. national security to Russian discretion, the U.S. government has since backed away from that idea.

Making matters worst, Moscow has threatened to vacate a number of arms-control treaties on account of missile defense, including the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) accords. Although cooler heads have prevailed for the moment, senior Russian officials did threaten to withdraw from the 1987 INF treaty that led to the scrapping of nearly 2,700 U.S. and Russian ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers.

Moscow is noticeably skittish that the treaty bars producing these missiles, while a number of countries on Russia's periphery, such as North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan, all have active missiles -- not to mention nuclear programs.

Although not overtly germane to missile defense, a Russian moratorium on the 1990 CFE accord, which limits forces in NATO and former Warsaw Pact countries, is possible as the Russian parliament's lower house passed a law in early November authorizing Putin to end compliance.

Using CFE as a foil against missile defense, Putin can push major capitals to encourage the Baltic states on Russia's western flank to sign onto the 1999 modified CFE treaty, stemming the possibility of a U.S. or NATO buildup there.

As if that saber-rattling weren't enough, the Russians also tested an SS-19 Stiletto ICBM at the end of October, just to drive home the point about their displeasure. The Russians claim the SS-19 is specifically designed to penetrate missile-defense systems. Russia has stated that it will conduct another five ballistic missile tests by the end of the year, including ICBMs, adding to the seven it had conducted as of press time in 2007.

Despite the proposals, counterproposals and threats of vacating treaties, neither Bush nor Putin seems willing to move off his position for -- or against -- the planned Eastern European sites for the moment.

But it's not just about the U.S. and Russia.

EUROPEAN ANGST

All of this rhetorical jousting over missile defense is also having an effect on the security debate in Europe, especially in Poland and the Czech Republic, and at NATO. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) of President Lech Kaczynski and former Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski was in favor of a missile-defense system at Redzikowo, in the north of the country near Slupsk on the Baltic Sea coast. But the conservative PiS government lost parliamentary elections in late October to the Civic Party (PO). Although the PO is likely to continue to favor missile defense, it's potentially an open question.

Polish public opinion isn't entirely convinced about missile defense. The Poles are less than enamored with America over Iraq, question a threat to Poland from Iran and are unhappy about not being added to the American visa waiver program.

Not surprisingly, the Polish national security establishment also wants to extract all it can from the U.S. for allowing the placement of the interceptors in Poland, as it is worried about taking a ration of Russian wrath without appropriate compensation. Although positive about closer defense ties with Washington, and by extension NATO, Warsaw has been dropping not-so-subtle hints about wanting deal sweeteners in exchange for hosting the interceptors.

The Poles have expressed interest in PAC-3 and THAAD missile-defense systems, defense modernization assistance and more intelligence-sharing, among other issues. Poland is already one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid in Europe.

The X-band midcourse radar in the Czech Republic, scheduled to be located in the Brdy military district near a former Soviet base about 50 miles west of Prague, isn't without controversy, either. While the ruling Civic Democratic Party of Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek supports the missile-defense radar, as does President Vaclav Klaus, concerns exist among the Czech public, especially about the system's environmental and health effects. Czech opposition parties such as the Social Democrats and the Greens are calling for a national referendum on the issue -- and for the EU and NATO to play a larger role in European missile-defense plans.

NATO has generally considered the talks among Washington, Warsaw and Prague as a bilateral issue, and has chosen not to interfere. Indeed, in general, NATO has expressed support for missile defense in Europe. NATO Secretary Gen. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stated after the April North Atlantic Council meeting: "There is absolutely a shared threat perception between the allies. Allies all agree that there is a threat from ballistic missiles."

At a meeting of NATO's 26 defense chiefs in June, the alliance agreed to assess the political and military implications of missile defense in Europe in a report due in February.

While NATO is actively studying short- and medium-range ballistic-missile-defense programs for Europe, France and Germany have expressed concern about U.S. missile-defense assets in theater that aren't controlled by NATO.

European NATO members also fear provoking Moscow on other thorny issues, such as energy supply and security, the question of Kosovo independence and future NATO expansion (e.g., Ukraine and Georgia) in Russia's near abroad.

Russian anxiety about the Eastern European missile shield is likely more about the placement of the system in what it perceives as its neighborhood -- specifically, its old stomping grounds -- than strategic concerns. Not even taking into account the sea and air legs of its strategic nuclear triad, the Kremlin should realize that the currently configured system -- totaling 10 launchers -- couldn't deal with a massive Russian nuclear assault on the U.S. Moscow is also in denial that defensive weapons such as missile defense have a stabilizing effect on the security environment, as opposed to offensive weapons, which can be destabilizing, as research has shown.

It's likely the Kremlin will try to leverage public sentiment in Eastern Europe and NATO countries about missile defense to get impressionable, democratically elected governments to back down from their support for the system. Moscow will also try to make missile defense a wedge issue to divide Europe, undermine NATO and weaken trans-Atlantic relations, while carving out a sphere of influence similar to that of imperialist Russia.

Worst of all, Russia might deepen its nuclear cooperation with Iran, deciding to continue building and then fuel the Bushehr reactor as a bargaining chip against missile defense in Eastern Europe. Notably, both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made trips to Tehran in October within weeks of one another. It was the first visit of a Russian leader to Iran since Stalin met with the allies in Tehran in 1943.

It appears that the Russians will do all they can to prevent the deployment of missile defense in Eastern Europe -- maybe all of Europe. Although hope may spring eternal, it's unlikely an increasingly confident Kremlin is going to change its position.

But in the end, missile defense is a defensive system -- and every country has a right to self-defense. MAD had its time and place, but now that the technology is available to end our vulnerability to ballistic missiles, not doing so is nothing less than mad.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in Armed Forces journal