How NATO-Russia talks on missile defense could halt – or launch – a new arms race

Some security experts say the most urgent quest of our time is convincing Moscow to allow the US to defend the West with a missile defense shield.

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    An Iranian Tondar missile was test-launched in central Iran last year. The West remains highly concerned about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.
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Today's dialogue about missile defense can be traced to a simple idea expressed by Ronald Reagan in his famous "star wars" speech 27 years ago.

"What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack; that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?" he asked.

President Reagan's vision of a shield against nuclear missiles seems little closer to reality than it was on the day he enunciated it. The USSR ceased to exist almost two decades ago, and rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, as well as international terrorists, have emerged as the new threat. Yet the United States continues to sink $10 billion annually into missile-defense technology, and recently won NATO support for building in Europe the first stage of what could become a global antimissile network.

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The central problem, as in Reagan's time, remains Russia. No longer the enemy, but still very much a potential spoiler, Moscow fears that the emergence of a workable missile defense could subvert its aging Soviet-era nuclear deterrent and end what its military thinkers call their country's "strategic independence."

Putin: expect a Russian 'response'

Despite agreeing to talk about a cooperative approach at the NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon last month, Kremlin leaders warn that if the West fails to meet their terms for a "joint" missile-defense program they would be forced to radically upgrade Russia's offensive nuclear forces, thus initiating a new arms race. That could finish off Reagan's other great dream: a nuclear-weapons-free world.

"I would like to openly say that the choice for us in the coming decade is as follows: We will either come to terms on missile defense and form a full-fledged joint mechanism of cooperation or we will plunge into a new arms race and have to think of deploying new strike means. It's obvious that this scenario will be very hard," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in his early December State of the Nation address.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was even more explicit. "If antimissile and radar systems are set up near our border ... they will undermine our nuclear capabilities," he said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "So, it's only natural that we're alarmed by this prospect, and we are obligated to take some measures in response."

Some security experts say the most urgent quest of our time is finding a way to satisfy Moscow while allowing the US to proceed with plans to defend the West from potential missile attacks that even the Russians agree are plausible.

Cooperation as a game changer

"We are still living in a cold-war world, in which the strategic fundamentals are little changed from Reagan's time. The ability of Russia and the US to wipe each other out many times over with their nuclear arsenals remains the dominant reality," says Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"We need to forge a new strategic relationship founded on collaboration; both sides say they want this," he says. "History shows you can't do that by working to limit offensive weapons. But working together on defensive weapons could be the game changer, the vehicle that transforms it from a relationship of adversity to one of collaboration.... On the other hand, failure could be a game breaker" that brings the era of confrontation roaring back.

However, the devil is in the details. Media reports that the two sides reached a deal at the Lisbon summit were premature, if not wrong. In fact, experts say, NATO leaders rejected Mr. Medvedev's proposal to build a joint "sectoral" missile-defense system and the two sides agreed only to set up a committee to discuss other ideas.

Under Medvedev's plan, NATO and Russia would build separate antimissile shields, and the two would exchange data and monitoring teams. The concept, explained to reporters by Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, is "if there is a missile flying over our territory that is heading toward the US, we will shoot it down. If there is a missile coming toward Russia over the US zone of responsibility, then the Americans will shoot it down. But in either case, Russia retains control over its own missile-defense system, and NATO over its own."

Russia inherited from the USSR a limited, and now outdated, missile defense system meant to defend Moscow from nuclear attack. Early this month, Russia's Defense Ministry said that it's moving forward to build an "integrated air defense network" within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which comprises Russia and six other post-Soviet states, beginning with the imminent delivery of 40 advanced S-300PS air defense missiles to Kazakhstan.

Western experts say Medvedev's missile-defense plan was unacceptable, in part due to the Russian requirement that NATO must not install radar or missile interceptors that could cover Russian territory. A missile from North Korea or Iran targeting the US would inevitably traverse Russian territory, they say, and NATO is not going to turn a blind eye to those threats.

"It was not a well-thought-out proposal, but that's not to say that we couldn't come up with some sort of missile-defense cooperation. The problem is that NATO itself has no clear plan, and would probably rather wait until it has one before thinking about how to involve Russia," says Dmitry Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington-based think tank.

What Russia might want

Most Russian experts agree that, if there is to be a NATO system with coverage of Russian airspace, Moscow would accept nothing less than command-level participation.

"Do you expect us to believe that, in a crisis, we could rely on some American general to defend Moscow?" says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The reverse is true as well. So the ideal solution is to create a joint command.... I think Medvedev's Lisbon proposal was just an opening move, and that he is willing to discuss other ideas. But if [the West] keeps rejecting everything we suggest, then, at some point, strategic thinkers in Moscow are going to decide that we need to change the paradigm, and think about how to defend ourselves."

Many Russian experts say they are leery of US hawks who view Russia as an enemy, including prominent Republicans who argue against the New START offensive nuclear arms reduction accord, still awaiting ratification in the Senate, in part because it links cuts in nuclear arsenals with a call for talks on missile defense.

"Some of these people are still living in the cold war, and they have not changed their assumptions at all," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "On the other hand, we have two young leaders at the top, Obama and Medvedev, who show no sign of cold-war thinking. So, at long last, we do have a real chance to come to an understanding."

Mr. Simes says that "Russia has legitimate concerns, and we should stop pretending otherwise.... But Moscow also needs to get off its high horse and realize it's not going to be given the same rights as a member of NATO."

The bottom line, he says, is that Russia may have to accept less than it has been demanding. "Of course Russia would want to be at the main table from the beginning in any missile-defense system for Europe," he says. "But that's just not likely to happen."

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