Russia exasperated with US over missile defense

A top Russian defense official today signaled growing frustration with the US, which has refused to provide legal guarantees that a planned missile-defense shield is not directed at Moscow.

Alexei Nikolsky/Government Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a meeting in the Communication Center of the Russian government in Moscow, Wednesday.

A top Russian defense official warned Thursday that NATO's plans to install an anti-missile shield in Europe are a "litmus test" for future relations between Moscow and the West.

The tough statement by deputy defense minister Anatoly Antonov comes ahead of a planned summit between Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin and President Obama, and signals Moscow's growing exasperation with the US position after a flurry of optimism earlier this month.

Russian sources say it appears to be a long and empty dialogue that will ultimately leave Russia out in the cold as NATO deploys its missile shield, which is ostensibly meant to protect against Iranian missiles.

"This is a very sensitive subject for us," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee. "It looks like the Americans are just stringing us along. If this anti-missile system is really not directed against Russia, why not sign a legal document declaring that? Why not to give Russia access to real monitoring of the system?"

Russian military experts say the planned missile shield would, in its later stages, undermine the country's nuclear deterrent. Unless the US makes a legally binding pledge never to use the weapons against Russia and makes Moscow an equal partner in a joint system, they say, a new arms race with the West looks inevitable.

At a Defense Ministry meeting Tuesday, President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia was already preparing a range of countermeasures to defeat NATO missile defense, including forward deployments of tactical nuclear missiles in Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

"We are not closing the doors for communication, but we really need to prepare ourselves to the change of situation," Mr. Medvedev said. "We need to be fully armed by 2017-18 ... we must get ready for a serious rearming of the armed forces so that we could be in a due shape and capable to respond to the missile defense in Europe."

Flurry of excitement ends in disappointment

Russian experts say the Kremlin has been extremely disappointed by the lack of response to its concerns by the Obama administration.

There was a flurry of excitement earlier this month, when US news reports suggested that Washington might be willing to share sensitive technical information about the SM-3 interceptor rocket that's expected to be the mainstay of NATO's missile shield by 2020. Such information, the Russians say, might provide a material demonstration that these weapons are really meant for use only against Iran and other so-called "rogue states" and would not be used to undermine Russia's own nuclear deterrent.

But that hope appears to have collapsed. The Moscow daily Kommersant reported last week that a visit by US State Department Special Envoy for Strategic Stability and Missile Defense Ellen Tauscher included handover of a package of missile-defense information that Russian military specialists evaluated as "[expletive] useless."

State Dept spokesperson Victoria Nuland later declined to comment, saying, "I’m not going to go into the specifics of the discussions" Ms. Tauscher had with the Russians. "I’ll just say that we are committed to pursuing missile-defense cooperation with Russia and are continuing discussions."

Room for cooperation

Much of this might be jockeying for position in advance of an expected meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin, which Russian news reports suggest could take place on the sidelines of the G8 summit in mid-May, shortly after Putin has been inaugurated for his third term as president of Russia.

There have been some positive developments lately, which suggest Putin may be turning away from his anti-Western election rhetoric toward greater cooperation, including an unprecedented Russian offer last week to give NATO use of a Volga region airbase to sustain resupply efforts to its embattled forces in Afghanistan.

"There are things the Americans could do to convince us that they're serious about bringing us on board," says Sergei Markov, a political expert with close ties to the Kremlin. "First, they could move the focus of the anti-missile system from northern to southern Europe, which is where the threat is supposed to be. Second, they could take serious steps to develop an anti-missile shield with us jointly...

"We understand that Obama probably can't take any major decisions before the elections. People in Moscow are optimistic that in the long run, Washington will behave rationally about this, and realize that it's not worth alienating Russia over this," he adds. "There are a lot of areas where we can develop cooperation, and we'd like to get to them, but Russia will never accept a situation where our nuclear deterrent is undermined."

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