Missile Defense in New York

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York this week to discuss a range of NATO-Russian security issues. Missile defense is expected to dominate the agenda, and the prospects for breakthrough appear dim. Wild statements have been made by some Russians about possible deals if the U.S. were to seriously trade their growing missile defense capabilities, but there can be no doubt that the issue is central to the future bilateral relationship, to future talks on other strategic and nuclear assets, and to any future steps towards global nuclear disarmament.

Both sides have admitted that they have made almost no progress in the search for an understanding on missile defense issues since they agreed to work in earnest on reaching a deal almost two years ago in Lisbon. The repeated claims by the United States and NATO that allied missile defense is not directed at Russia have been met with disbelief in Moscow. Russia sees the United States acting pre-emptively in striking deals with allies for basing elements of the emerging architecture and acting in bad faith. Russian military leaders have announced that their military modernization will ensure Russia’s arsenal can overcome NATO missile defense forces, and are themselves developing their own missile defense capabilities.

The Obama Administration’s shift toward a Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) was met with some surprise in Eastern Europe when it was announced on September 17, 2009. While this involved abandoning planned facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, the Administration emphasized the need to move forward more quickly to address vulnerabilities to more immediate threats developing from the south and to involve allies in the construction of the new architecture.

While the changes were welcome to the Russians in the immediate term, they did little to quell their stated concerns that later stages would pose threats to Russia’s deterrent capacity, even though these forces could clearly overwhelm a fully-implemented PAA in Europe. Some of the allergic reaction may be explained by the further integration of former Soviet states into the U.S. orbit, as well as the construction of sensitive military sites within their close neighborhood.

Moscow does not need to see an immediate threat from these missile defense plans now, but rather the potential in the future. Just as the United States hedges against the emergence of future threats in the distant future with its own strategic forces, so too does Russia. Given the long lead time needed on high-tech military efforts, Russian military planners will incorporate worst case scenarios into their planning. President Vladimir Putin has said that he is concerned about what the next U.S. Administration might do on missile defense, making pointed remarks about U.S. presidential candidate former Governor Mitt Romney saying that Russia is still a primary foe of the United States. Given all of the difficulties and interests wrapped up in missile defense, however, it is not clear that striking a real deal would be much easier under the second term of an Obama Administration either.

These are the views of the author.

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