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.
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."
The dispute looks almost impossible to resolve, in part because both sides are talking at cross-purposes, and the threats each is concerned about remain theoretical future possibilities rather than immediate realities that might be negotiated over.
NATO claims it needs a shield to defend against hypothetical rogue missile strikes from Iran or North Korea – a threat that does not presently exist – while Moscow complains that the shield currently being installed in Europe might undercut Russia's strategic edge in its later stages, almost a decade hence.
"The paradox of this debate over missile defense is that it's completely disconnected from real issues on both sides," says Mr. Lukyanov. "The actual military issues they're both talking about are countering virtual threats, not real ones. But in political terms it's about the basis of trust, and it's causing trouble right now."
On the Russian side, the missile defense controversy helps gin up domestic support for newly inaugurated President Vladimir Putin's sweeping rearmament plans, which may be popular in Russia's conservative hinterland where nostalgia for USSR-era superpower status remains strong, but are not necessarily the wisest economic priority for Russia at this time.
"At this juncture of history, for the first time, Russia faces no significant threat whatsoever, from any direction. So there needs to be a threat of some sort to talk about," says Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Moscow think tank.
But the fractious dialogue over missile defense has made a bad situation worse and, he adds, Western leaders are not addressing the legitimate concerns of Russian military leaders in a forthright manner.
"It's all explained as if it's a counter to this nonexistent Iranian threat," which may be addressed by other means in coming days and months, Mr. Karaganov says. "These are either lies, or they are cover for other goals. We are simply not talking openly or realistically about the missile defense issue, and this drags down the level of trust."
Pushing Russia toward China?
It could also be pushing Russia into what some observers are describing as a possible foreign-policy pivot toward China and the East under its newly returned Kremlin leader, Mr. Putin. Speculation on this theme has been spiking since Putin announced that he would skip last Friday's Group of Eight summit at Camp David and will instead make his first foreign visits to Belarus and China in the next couple of weeks.
Though it has been little remarked in coverage of the issue, Moscow and Beijing see eye to eye on missile defense, says Karaganov.
"We've been having constant conversations with our Chinese colleagues about this, and they have the same point of view as us," he says. "They haven't spoken up much about it, but they may start to do so."