Russian and U.S. strategic impasse

While most nuclear arms control attention will remain focused on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Conference (PrepCom) in Geneva this week, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov is expected to meet on Tuesday with U.S. Defense Undersecretary James Miller in Brussels to discuss a related issue: missile defense.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on March 15th updates in U.S. missile defense plans, which among a number of changes included adding more interceptors to the station in Alaska, and cancelling the final phase of its four-stage “European phased adaptive approach” (EPAA) for missile defense in Europe, which Russia has previously voiced specific concerns about.   Although not cited explicitly as a reason for the cancellation, some have speculated that the scrapping of the last phase of the EPAA may provide a more positive context for dialogue between the United States and Russia on nuclear weapons issues more broadly.
However, Russian officials so far have been cautious about welcoming the announcement. In a statement to the PrepCom last week, Moscow continued to raise missile defense as an issue to be addressed in discussions around nuclear posture and disarmament. During the NATO-Russian Foreign Ministers meeting last Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russian officials were still examining the impact of the recent U.S. shift on missile defense, and that Moscow would continue to seek guarantees that other parts of the system would not pose an eventual threat toward Russia’s strategic deterrent.

During their joint presentation on New START on the sidelines of the PrepCom last week, Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said the relationship between the United States and Russia is good, but acknowledged that several hurdles remain. Deputy Defense Minister Antonov said the Russians are seeking greater trust and consistency from the United States.

This trust deficit goes to the heart of differences over strategic issues, including missile defense. Military planners as a rule of thumb focus on capabilities and potential capabilities, rather than gauging trust or trying to discern true intentions. If the United States continues to improve and deploy its missile defense capabilities in the long term, this could be interpreted by Russia as a threat to the perceived strategic balance – unless the United States can offer some type of guarantees or engage in more confidence-building measures with Russia. So, although Moscow had been more vocal about the fourth phase of European missile defense, its stated cancellation alone did not provide immediate relief – not enough to assuage Russia’s concerns about the larger overall advancement of U.S. strategic capabilities and NATO in Russia’s backyard.

These issues arose during a private meeting BASIC co-hosted in Brussels on April 15th, which was focused on addressing tactical nuclear weapons – weapons which are not covered in New START. Finding ways to bolster transparency and confidence building measures in Europe across a range of interconnected security issues, including conventional, missile defense and nuclear, was seen as essential to making progress in any one aspect of security. BASIC will co-host a follow-up meeting in Moscow, in mid-May, to discuss concrete areas of cooperation that could eventually support more nuclear disarmament.
These are the personal views of the author.

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