As Europe and the US grow increasingly concerned about the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, Russia is taking a firm stance against one of the West's key plans for defending itself: a European missile defense shield. The issue is likely to be at the top of the agenda for a meeting of the NATO-Russian Council in Brussels today.
Officials from the NATO military alliance say the system is necessary to protect against threats like Iran and say they have sought Russian cooperation and participation. But Russian officials contend that such a shield could threaten its strategic nuclear forces and risk triggering a new arms race. Moscow is now threatening to withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and deploy ballistic missiles along the border of Europe as a countermeasure.
“NATO's position is clear. We need missile defense for our own security," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, seeking to dispel Russia's fears. "We believe our defenses would be more effective if we cooperate.”
President Obama had previously scrapped plans for a similar shield in September 2009 due to strong Russian objections, Reuters reports, and the revised version NATO is now floating appears to be no more palatable for Moscow.
As frustration mounts among NATO officials, Russians have countered that the West does not understand their position. Alexei Arbatov from the Center for International Security told the Voice of Russia that his nation wants its interests taken into consideration and written guarantees that Europe will reconsider the missile defense system if the Iran nuclear threat diminishes.
“NATO’s position is not impeccable and inviolable, as the alliance’s chief claims it to be," Mr. Arbatov said. "Besides, NATO should not force its will on Russia or dictate to it, not if it wants to have Russia as a reliable partner.”
Russia’s Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov told China’s Xinhua news agency that relations between Russia and NATO had already reached a deadlock. If a cooperative agreement is not reached, he warned that there would be serious mistrust and suspicion between the two. Moscow officials are likely to seek legally binding agreements from the United States that any missile defense system will not be used to target Russia.
Forging such an agreement has proved a sticking point for negotiations after NATO officials said that Russia’s demand was unnecessary, reports the Washington Post. American and European officials contend that the system would be used to protect against medium- and long-range threats from the Middle East, a protection that they say Russia also needs.
While NATO officials have said they will not allow Russia to dictate their internal decision, the alliance may have a hard time ignoring Russia’s demands as it is dependent on the former communist nation for supply routes to Afghanistan, reports German media outlet Deutsche Welle. Especially in the wake of Pakistan closing NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, the issue is likely to prove a strong bargaining chip. Still, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Störe says it's unlikely Russia would take any drastic steps in using Afghanistan for leverage.
“I think one should not combine things that have nothing to do with each other. It is in Russia’s and NATO’s interest that the international operation in Afghanistan is continued,” he said.