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How US, Russia can agree on missile defense

US and Russia relations are in a nosedive over Eric Snowden, Syria, and Iran. One way to reverse that is for Presidents Putin and Obama to agree on missile defense at a planned summit in September. US-Russian cooperation in space can serve as a model.

By Kevin Ryan, Simon SaradzhyanOp-ed contributors / July 29, 2013

President Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17. Op-ed contributors Kevin Ryan and Simon Saradzhyan write: 'It’s always darkest before the dawn. This could be the time for the two presidents to really lead. Cooperation in space exploration proves that the relationship does not have to remain at the bottom of the well. '

Evan Vucci/AP/file

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Cambridge, Mass.

Relations between the United States and Russia today remind one of the report from the well digger, “We hit bottom and have started to dig.” Whether it’s over issues like leaker Eric Snowden or Syria and Iran, the US and Russia seem to end up on opposite sides of most major problems. But that trend could soon reverse – at least regarding one contentious subject.

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On Aug. 9, American and Russian defense and foreign ministers are expected to meet with their US counterparts in Washington. They will try to find “deliverables” for a summit between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September. The two leaders would meet in advance of a G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5-6.

According to Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, the August meeting will focus on missile defense, a thorny problem that has divided the two countries and scuttled new initiatives in arms control and security. The US maintains its proposed defense shield in Europe is only to protect against long-range Iranian missiles; Moscow objects, saying it could be used against Russia. 

In remarks at a NATO meeting July 24, Mr. Antonov may have signaled new Russian flexibility. He did not renew Russia’s long-standing demand for legally binding guarantees that US missile defenses won’t undermine Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Instead, he called for a US-Russian document that would ensure that the Russian Defense Ministry's contributions to a cooperative project on missile defense would not be later used against Russia. “We are simply bound to find solutions to the problems that are dividing us," Antonov said.

Over the years, US and Russian presidents have proposed various forms of cooperation in missile defense in order to build trust and improve security, but they have failed to find a way to implement their ideas. To strike a deal on missile defense, Obama and Putin should follow the example of their countries’ cooperation in space as a model in carrying out that deal.

Space and rocket science were at the heart of US-Russian strategic competition during the 1950s and ’60s. No one then envisioned the two countries sharing a glass of Tang, much less sensitive space technologies.

But gradually, with permission and guidance from the top, the countries began opening up cooperation in space. When the Cold War ended and defense budgets on both sides declined, the realm of space exploration transformed from one of confrontation into one of cooperation. The reason was primarily economic. Russia and the US found that together they could afford to do what they could not do separately.

The political and technical realities of today preclude a fully joint US-Russian missile defense system.  Nevertheless, even a modest level of cooperation could provide better and cheaper overall defense for both sides. The way in which the US and Russia changed their space competition into cooperation can serve as a model for changing the relationship in missile defense. Here are five steps the governments can borrow from space cooperation:

Set common goals. The US and Russia could not have achieved cooperation in space, if they had not agreed on common goals, such as building the International Space Station. Moscow and Washington should focus on a common goal of protecting against ballistic missile threats.

Synchronize bureaucracies. In 1992, Moscow created the Russian Space Agency, providing NASA a direct counterpart, greatly facilitating cooperation. Russia should do the same for the US Missile Defense Agency.

Establish legal frameworks. Beginning in 1992, legal agreements allowed for the first launch of a US satellite on a Russian rocket and docking of US shuttles at Russia’s space station. Similar agreements are needed to enable businesses from both sides to risk money in missile defense cooperation.

Ease technology-sharing restrictions. The US and Russia could benefit from technology sharing in missile defense if both governments would open the door for industry to pursue cooperation. This has already been done in space for some of the same companies that do missile defense.

Explore cost-cutting synergies. Hi-tech US and Russian businesses found ways to collaborate when freed to do so by their governments. They successfully cut costs while protecting national and industrial secrets. They can do the same in missile defense.

It’s always darkest before the dawn. This could be the time for the two presidents to really lead. Cooperation in space exploration proves that the relationship does not have to remain at the bottom of the well. 

Gen. Kevin Ryan is director of defense and intelligence projects at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and former chief of staff for the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at the Belfer Center and former Moscow correspondent for Space News.

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