Missile shield shift opens common ground for Russia and US

Strategists say that President Barack Obama's decision to scrap a controversial missile shield for Eastern Europe has mollified Russia, and could open the door for cooperation against common nuclear threats.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

After years squabbling over how the US could build an effective missile defense shield for Europe without scaring or offending Moscow, a growing number of experts suggest there may be an obvious way to square that circle: bring the Russians in and make them partners in a broad multi-national project.

President Barack Obama's decision in September to shelve Bush-era plans to deploy strategic anti-missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic has greatly mollified Moscow and opened a window of opportunity that might be used to change the whole security paradigm in Europe, some Russian experts say. They suggest it's an idea whose time has come, and one that dovetails neatly with Mr. Obama's embrace of the "Global Zero" campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. Even though the US intends to go ahead with a toned-down missile shield for Eastern Europe, the plan to station tactical SM-3 anti-missile systems does not pose a threat to Russia's aging nuclear missile deterrent, and thus – at least for the moment – Moscow is unperturbed.

"Real opportunities have been created by Obama's shift on missile defense," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "But the only way to make this moment permanent, and avoid new anti-missile plans becoming fresh irritants, is to work together to build a system to protect the world," against rogue states or accidental missile launches, he says.

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The Russians say they have plenty to bring to the table if the US or NATO issues an invitation to work together on a joint shield, including a growing appreciation of the menace posed by potentially nuclear-tipped medium range missiles launched from Iran or North Korea.

But they would also have demands that could prove unacceptable to Washington, such as an insistence that Russia have its finger on the trigger in any cooperative global anti-missile network.

"The devil is in the details," says Ariel Cohen, a security expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "If there were a joint key, the US would probably not want Russia to share it. It effectively would give a veto power to a foreign government when matters of US homeland defense come up."

Star wars

But Mr. Cohen says there is a surprising amount of common ground between strategic thinkers in Moscow and Washington on the possibility to realize former US President Ronald Reagan's controversial "Star Wars" dream of making nuclear missiles irrelevant by building a high-tech umbrella to stop them.

While Russia's official stance remains to ask the US to agree to a ban on all anti-missile weapons similar to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the former Bush administration pulled out of in 2001, a number of Russian strategists outside the government but who help advise the Kremlin on policy say they hope the government will soon take a compromise position that would include joint missile defense against, say, a nuclear weapon launched by a rogue state, coupled with aggressive steps by Russia and the US to reduce the size of their own nuclear arsenals.

"If you can get away from the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that has held the world in a death grip for the past 60 years, then we could certainly talk about cooperative approaches to missile defense," Cohen says, referring to the old "balance of terror" under which the US and the former USSR saw no alternative but to negotiate mutual limitations on their vast arsenals of offensive nuclear weapons.

During a summit meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow last July Obama signalled some sympathy for Moscow's concerns on US missile defense plans.

And some Russian security experts say current talks aimed at finding a replacement for the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty could represent the end of the road for the cold war-era paradigm of global strategic management.

"Controls on national defenses and offensive strategic weapons are leading into a blind alley," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Even if we theoretically reached that 'global zero' point, where the big powers had no nuclear weapons, we would still have to deal with states that have the capability to make (nuclear missiles) and the will to launch them. So the threat will still be present," he says.

"Therefore, what we need are joint efforts to analyze common threats, in order to prevent them, and to move toward a general system under joint command. That is the best way to overcome the apparent contradictions," in which anti-missile defenses deployed by one side appear to undermine the nuclear deterrent of the other, he adds.

What Russia brings to the table

Russia currently maintains a functioning anti-missile network around its capital city, Moscow, and has a struggling but still viable space program, including some of the best launch vehicles around. Last year Russia's military opened a state-of-the-art early warning radar station at Armavir in southern Russia which, combined with a Soviet-era radar station at Gabala in Azerbaijan, furnishes the capability to detect any missile launches from the Middle East, Iran, the Indian Ocean, and western China.

"Russia has much more to offer than just radars," across a geographical expanse that runs from the North Korean border to the Baltic Sea, says Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Center for International Security, a Moscow think tank.

"We have a well-developed infrastructure for anti-ballistic missile systems and we're ahead of the US in the high-speed missile technology that's essential for anti-missile weapons," he adds. "If we worked together, we could make it seem absurd to go on with the old system of nuclear deterrence."

The main obstacle facing the idea of joint US-Russian missile defense, say its advocates, is the ongoing lack of political trust between Moscow and Washington.

"When the subject is missile defense, you're talking about the most secret of state secrets, and there needs to be a high level of confidence before that kind of information can be shared," says Sergei Oznobishchev, a security analyst with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

"This is not, at heart, a technical problem. If we had better relations we could do anything together, and that includes building a joint missile defense shield," he adds.

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