Missile defense and relations with Russia

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Moscow this week to meet with Russian officials and missile defense will be high on the agenda. NATO leaders agreed at the November summit to work together on missile defense against a possible future threat from the Middle East. NATO also agreed to consider cooperation with Russia. In discussions since November, Russia has pushed for a joint missile defense system, whereas NATO has insisted that allied strategic missile defense be entirely separate from Russia’s and that further agreements would entail only the sharing of some information.

Russians worry that U.S.-led missile defense, especially in the later phases of the Obama Administration’s missile defense plans (known as the “Phased Adaptive Approach”), will involve ever-increasing capabilities that will compromise their strategic nuclear deterrent. Russians feel that they need to step in now to make their concerns clear, because given the amount of money already invested in U.S. missile defense (over $100 billion since the 1980s, according to the GAO), a commitment like this will most likely carry on no matter what happens – despite failed tests and economic recession.

The Americans will be considering the effectiveness of missile defense on its own merits, possibly in discussions taking place at the annual U.S. missile defense conference and exhibit in Washington, D.C., which also runs this week. Any suggestion that the system will be held back for fear of affecting relations with Russia will be fiercely resisted by Congress.

Of course, U.S. officials keep trying to reassure their Russian counterparts that the missile defense system will not be aimed at them. They point out that this should be believable because the Cold War is over. Yet it in a world where strategic nuclear parity is still considered to be a paramount matter between the two powers, Russians worry that U.S. missile defense deployments will eventually tip the strategic nuclear balance in the United States’ favor and further weaken Russia’s position as a global military power.

Because the United States has the advantage when it comes to conventional weapons and the potential for financial investment in weapons technology, it may be reasonable to expect that the onus weighs heavier on the United States to prove that its own Cold War mentality is over. U.S. missile defense still carries with it the residue of the Cold War and the recent act of binding in NATO has intensified Russians’ unease. Russians will look for reassurance from Secretary Gates that their concerns are not being brushed aside.

These are the personal views of the author.

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