Russia threatens to take aim at NATO's missile defense shield

At a conference in Moscow convened to discuss the NATO missile defense shield, a fierce point of contention between the US and Russia, efforts to find a compromise reached a dead end.

Mikhail Metzel/AP
A Russian military officer is on duty in the main control center of a radar station at the missile defense facility in Sofrino, 31 miles northeast of Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 4. Participants in the international conference on missile defense held in Moscow, visited the missile defense facility in Sofrino on Friday.

A 50-nation conference aimed at airing differences between Russia and the US over missile defense ended today in Moscow, apparently having accomplished its purpose all too well: Russia's top general threatened to attack NATO missile defense positions.

Yesterday Russian officials declared that talks aimed at finding a compromise have all but reached a dead end, and Russia's military chief of staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov threatened a preemptive rocket strike against NATO missile defense emplacements if current deployment plans go ahead.

"A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens," Gen. Makarov told the stunned gathering of delegations from almost 50 countries, including NATO, the US, former Soviet republics, China, South Korea, and Japan.

Russian military experts used computer simulations and other graphic aids to make their case that current plans to deploy a European missile defense shield will undermine Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent in its later stages, and by 2025 may render Russia's nuclear forces obsolete.

Kremlin leaders have repeatedly warned that going ahead with the Pentagon's missile defense shield could lead to a new arms race and permanently undermine prospects for East-West cooperation.

"We believe that we have outlined our concerns clearly, before the world, and everyone can see that our case is reasonable," says Sergei Markov, a political expert who has frequently advised incoming President Vladimir Putin. "We think the US should realize the plan it has suggested will lead to a new arms race, and they should return to the table with fresh approaches."

Mr. Makarov warned that Russia will begin to deploy Iskander-M short range missiles in its western enclave of Kaliningrad, and also in Russia's south and far eastern territories, to be used in potential strikes against US antimissile systems around the world, not only in Europe.

Ellen Tauscher, US special envoy for Strategic Stability and Missile Defense, told a Moscow press conference yesterday that Makarov is painting a picture of "Christmas future" (a reference to Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"), a dire scenario that needn't come to pass if both sides keep talking constructively.

"None of that is a surprise to us. We have heard it before," she said. "We don't believe that that rises to a counter-threat of deploying missiles someplace else. We think that they were showing us what could happen. We think that we are far from there, but we are aware of what they are saying and we understand their concerns."

"We need to continue to work on the confidence building measures and the trust issue that was well identified this afternoon as being a key hurdle, but one which we think we can bridge to get ourselves to a place where all sides NATO, the United States, and Russia believe that we can put together an agreement," she added. 

Russia wants a deal in which Russia either participates in a joint anti-missile system at the command level – ie. a Russian finger on the trigger – or a "sectoral" division of the world that would bar the US or NATO from scanning or dealing with threats over Russian territory.

Neither solution is acceptable to the US. The Americans argue that Russia is not a US ally, therefore it would never be granted a veto over the use of a system designed to defend the US and its allies. And since any rogue missile attack originating in North Korea or Iran is almost certain to traverse Russian airspace, the US is not going to limit its options by leaving defense against those threats in Russian hands.

"For a very long time much of the conversation that we have had with [the Russians] is about a characterization of limiting the system. And we cannot agree to that," Ms. Tauscher said. "We are never going to limit the ability to protect ourselves, our allies, our forward deployed troops and assets, no matter where they are deployed."

That leaves matters where they have been stuck for some time, with a mounting sense of Russian frustration and US bemusement over why the Russians won't move on from the cold war paradigm of Mutually Assured Destruction in which two nuclear-armed superpowers negotiated their survival through arms control.

The US argues that the world has changed and Moscow and Washington are no longer enemies, while multiple smaller, unpredictable threats have emerged. Russia counters that the US is seeking "absolute invulnerability"  at everyone else's expense.

"Russian leaders are not handling this well, and what General Makarov said is absolutely unprofessional. He effectively threatened to unleash war against NATO. That's not an appropriate way to go," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.    

"Sooner or later, maybe after the elections are over in the US, we probably need to find some face-saving formula to move on from this. Perhaps we can sign some non-binding political statement, or something that can allow Russian leaders to say we've overcome our differences and the Americans have taken note of our concerns. We need to do something like that, because there's a whole agenda of cooperation between our two countries that we need to get to, and this dispute is holding up progress," he says. 

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