New US-Russia arms race? Battle lines grow over missile defense.
Defense Secretary Gates and his Russian counterpart will sit down for high-level talks Thursday. US plans for antimissile deployments are spurring threats that Russia might withdraw from the New START nuclear treaty.
Moscow's previously troubled relations with NATO have improved greatly over the past two years, but the sleeping elephant in the room – the widening gap between Russian and Western visions for a missile defense shield to defend civilization from rogue attacks – may be about to wake up and turn nasty.Skip to next paragraph
Matters could come to a head Thursday, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, at the first high level meeting of the Russia-NATO Council since ties cooled following Russia's brief summer war with Georgia in 2008.
Last November, at NATO's Lisbon summit, presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev agreed to search for a joint formula to build a system that would protect Eurasia and North America without threatening Russia's aging nuclear deterrent, seen by the Kremlin as the foundation of its national security.
But if anything, the two sides have grown further apart since then, with Mr. Medvedev warning bleakly at a press conference last month that Russia might be forced to withdraw from the New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty and potentially plunge Europe into a new arms race if current US plans for antimissile deployments are carried out.
"Russia is growing disappointed because our concerns aren't being taken seriously," says Alexander Khramchikin, deputy director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "It turns out that improvements in our relations are fleeting, based on nothing substantial, while on the big issues NATO does whatever it wants and just makes Russia face the fact."
One sign of improving Russia-NATO ties – and also an example of how the two former cold war antagonists could work together for common ends – was on display this week. The occasion was the first airborne antiterrorist exercise,Vigilant Skies 2011, in which NATO and Russian armed forces integrated activities to prevent a September 11-type attack by tracking a "hijacked" aircraft across much of eastern Europe.
In the exercise, praised by officials on both sides, Russian fighters and ground controllers squired the "target" to the Polish border, where they seamlessly handed it off to the Polish Air Force, along with full information about its route.
But the looming row over missile defense threatens to overwhelm any goodwill generated by practical examples like that.
What Moscow wants
What Moscow wants is either a single antimissile system that's jointly operated – in other words, with a Russian finger on the trigger -- or two separate systems, one for Russia and one for Europe, that do not overlap. Since any missile launched against the West from Iran or North Korea would almost certainly traverse Russian airspace, the US and NATO appear unwilling to agree to limit their own system to radar and interceptor coverage that would end at the Russian border.