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NATO: European missile shield 'provisionally operational'

If there is any issue that threatens to derail relations with Russia, it's the issue of missile defense. 

By Correspondent / May 21, 2012

The NATO Missile Defense exhibit stands near the NATO summit media center at The McCormick Place, Friday, May 18, in Chicago.

Kiichiro Sato/AP



At its weekend summit in Chicago, NATO announced that the first phase of its controversial European missile defense shield has become "provisionally operational," news that will not be received well in Moscow.

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Fred Weir has been the Monitor's Moscow correspondent, covering Russia and the former Soviet Union, since 1998. 

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If there is any issue that threatens to derail the fragile East-West détente that's held since President Obama set out to reverse the mini-cold war that prevailed under George W. Bush, it's the increasingly acrimonious dispute over missile defense.

Earlier this month Russia's top general, Nikolai Makarov, went so far as to suggest that his forces might launch a preemptive strike against NATO missile defense emplacements in Central Europe if they were perceived to threaten Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent.

But NATO, which has made the issue a litmus test of alliance unity, has remained unmoved by Russian bombast on the subject and is clearly moving forward with the project, which is planned to reach full operational capability by 2020.

"This is the first step towards our long-term goal of providing full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory, and forces. Our system will link together missile defense assets from different Allies – satellites, ships, radars, and interceptors – under NATO command and control," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the summit on Sunday. "It will allow us to defend against threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area," he added.

Buried deep inside NATO's Chicago Summit Declaration is the strongest political statement yet offered by the alliance in hopes of mollifying Russian worries: "NATO missile defense is not directed against Russia and will not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities," it says. "While regretting recurrent Russian statements on possible measures directed against NATO’s missile defense system, we welcome Russia's willingness to continue dialogue with the purpose of finding an agreement on the future framework for missile defense cooperation."

While that statement may be perceived in Moscow as progress, it falls far short of the legally binding written pledge that the Kremlin has demanded.

"We've heard this before," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign-policy journal. "The thing is, when the Americans say their missile defense plans are not directed against Russia, they're telling the truth. It's against everybody. Since Ronald Reagan first floated the idea, missile defense has been seen as a way to protect the US against any and every possible missile threat. But Russia is the main country whose national security is based on strategic nuclear deterrence, in a balance with US forces. It cannot help but concern us directly." 


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