US drops Europe missile defense plan – but Moscow is unimpressed

Russia issued a cool response to the scrapping of a NATO anti-missile system much resented by the Kremlin. But experts say the cancellation could still help US-Russian relations.

Mikhail Metzel/AP/File
A Russian military officer is on duty in the main control center of a radar station at the missile defense facility in Sofrino, northeast of Moscow, last May.

Russia is officially unimpressed by a unilateral US decision to cancel the final phase of European missile defense – a program that Moscow has gone so far in the past as to almost threaten World War III over.

But despite the Kremlin's cool response to the cancellation, experts say that the US decision – which eliminates, at a stroke, Moscow's biggest burning security concern – could nonetheless open the door toward improving US-Russian relations.

The decision, announced over the weekend by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, cancels US plans for the fourth and final stage of the European missile defense shield, which would have involved adding SM3-IIB long-range interceptor missiles to the system's mix of short-and-medium range rockets in Poland by 2018.

Russian military officials have explicitly raged against "Phase 4" because the SM3 rockets would, theoretically, be capable of targeting the intercontinental ballistic missiles that make up the bulk of Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent. The United States may also scrap plans to deploy the long-range interceptors to Romania, another site Moscow has vigorously opposed.

Though US officials insist the changes have been made for budgetary reasons, and the need to shift resources to counter a more actual threat from North Korea – 14 new interceptors will be deployed in Alaska by 2017 – Russian experts say the move could nevertheless be a potential game changer for the present dismal equation in US-Russian relations. It should certainly end repeated Russian threats to walk out of the New START nuclear arms reduction accord if Moscow's concerns over missile defense aren't heard, they say.

But the initial response from Moscow was a jet of cold water on Monday.

"That is not a concession to Russia, nor do we regard it as such," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a US and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain."

In the US, conservative critics of the Obama administration may smell a rat, and see this move as a fulfillment of President Obama's promise to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, overheard by an open mike at a Seoul, South Korea, security conference a year ago, that he would be able to show the Russians "more flexibility" on missile defense after he was reelected in November.

But Russian conservatives claim they, too, are suspicious. The current Kremlin view, laid out in a foreign-policy manifesto by then-presidential candidate Vladimir Putin early last year is that the US is seeking to attain global military supremacy and that the shifting of a few missiles here or there will not change that picture.

"This is a murky affair," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee.

"It's not yet clear what is being moved to where. But judging by reports, the missiles will be located in Alaska, which means they will be right on top of our borders and could adversely affect our security. It might well strengthen US anti-missile defense and pose new trials for our relations.... So, forgive me if I don't applaud and shout 'hooray.' At least, let's wait for more information," Mr. Klimov says.

But other experts point out that Russia's relations with the US, which are arguably at their post-cold-war nadir right now, depend on much more than just a rational assessment of the strategic balance between the two countries.

"Sure, this will definitely please those in Russia who were genuinely concerned about the threat those missiles posed to our strategic deterrent, and those who sincerely cared about the deterioration of US-Russia relations," says Sergei Karaganov, honorary chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Russian security think tank.

"But it won't please those who were using that threat to justify the buildup of Russian arms, or to promote a domestic agenda based on fear of the external foe," he says.

Mr. Karaganov says Russia's military-industrial complex is a powerful lobby, and the prime beneficiary of a huge new rearmament program, which Mr. Putin outlined in another manifesto during his reelection campaign last year. The weaponry to be supplied to Russia's armed forces includes a new generation of ballistic missiles specifically designed to overcome US missile defenses.

"We have a big conservative lobby, part of which is a military-industrial complex that needs a rationale for the weapons they want to build – and the idea that the US is out to build a boundless anti-missile shield aimed at undermining Russia's deterrent fits the bill," says Karaganov.

"There are plenty of others who use the US as a boogeyman, to promote their favored domestic policies and accuse opponents of being in league with external forces.... It's quite strange since we are, in fact, living at a time when Russia has no serious strategic enemies at all. Even the US interferes less around the world than it used to," he says.

But Russia has taken a sharp turn to the right since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president a year ago. The Duma has passed a raft of laws aimed at limiting foreign influence in Russia – even to prevent US citizens from adopting Russian orphans – and just last month Putin urged Russian military leaders to launch a "drastic upgrade" in response to what he said were rising external threats.

"I think all the controversies lie in the sphere of politics" rather than objective strategic competition, says Vladimir Dvorkin, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

"That's why we shouldn't hope for quick change. But these new US decisions do offer Russian leaders a chance to rethink their previous positions. After all, they were talking so much about the threat posed by 'Phase 4' of the missile defense project for Europe, and now it's apparently not going to happen at all. We may hope that they will gradually change their minds. But, on the other hand, they can always find reasons not to," Mr. Dvorkin adds.

Karaganov concurs that the US move has, inadvertently or not, opened up fresh opportunities for the US and Russia to seek a new level of strategic accord.

"The mood will shift, and Russia will be more willing to talk about nuclear reductions – which Obama wants – and related issues. The basic impact of this is undeniably positive. It feels like we are starting to get onto the upward curve," he says.

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