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Why Russia Fears Transatlantic Missile Defense

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Poland and the Czech Republic are considering an American request to base elements of an anti-missile defense system on their territory.

Why Russia Fears Transatlantic Missile Defense

Soeren Kern | Strategic Studies Group | March 28, 2007

Poland and the Czech Republic are considering an American request to base elements of an anti-missile defense system on their territory. The negotiations call for the United States to establish up to 10 ground-based missile interceptors in Poland and an accompanying advanced radar station in the Czech Republic.

The new systems America plans to install in Central Europe will form a substantial part the European segment of the broader missile defense shield being co-developed by the United States and a number of other leading allies, including Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. The overall objective is to develop a worldwide layered and integrated missile defense program to protect the United States and its allies from long-range missiles fired from “rogue states” like Iran or North Korea, and from terrorists or other non-state actors.

The United States, which currently operates two missile interceptor sites in Alaska and California to protect against missile threats from North Korea, has been quietly negotiating for the last four years to site elements of a new base in the Czech Republic and Poland; both countries have governments that are centre-right and pro-American. The costs for the Central European projects, which are set to be operational by 2011, are expected to total some $1.6 billion.

Russian Doubletalk

Russia has reacted with predictable indignation, arguing that the American missile shield will upset the post-Cold War balance of power in Europe. Moscow says that any extension of the US missile project to Poland and the Czech Republic will force it to review its military planning to counter a perceived threat. And that’s not all.

At the Munich “Verkunde” Conference on Security Policy, an annual transatlantic gathering of policymakers and defense experts, Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 10 hotly charged that by deploying missile defenses in Central Europe, the United States with starting a new “arms race.” In rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, Putin went on to accuse the United States of “a hyper-inflated use of force” in the cause of world domination.

Shortly after Putin’s speech, Yury Baluyevsky, the Russian army chief of staff, on February 16 threatened that his country might withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, unless the United States abandons its plans to deploy the Central European defense shield. The INF Treaty ended production of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers in the United States and Russia.

But how should the Russian threats be interpreted?

Separating myth from reality would be a good place to begin. Most security analysts agree that Russian accusations that the US plan will upset the regional security balance are fundamentally without merit because there is simply no way that the planned US missile-defense system could neutralize the large Russian arsenal.

According to the latest accounting data under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Russia fields some 4,300 strategic warheads and keeps thousands of additional warheads in reserve. Moreover, Russia currently maintains almost 1,000 strategic delivery vehicles, including more than 500 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), almost 300 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and nearly 100 strategic bombers.

Therefore, to argue that fielding 10 unproven US missile interceptors will upset the European balance of power would appear at best to be a gross overreaction. Indeed, American officials readily admit that Russia could easily overwhelm the American antimissile system. US Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, head of the US Missile Defense Agency, on January 25 said that the interceptors “are directed toward rogue nations’ capabilities, not an obviously sophisticated ballistic missile fleet such as the Russians have.” Obering went on to say that “we cannot physically catch the Russian ICBMs even if we were trying to target those missiles.” This admission by itself would seem to prove that the American system is not directed against Russia.

So what is Russia really upset about?

Moscow, it would seem, is angry at its loss of influence in world affairs, and it inability to get it back. During his speech in Munich, Putin admitted as much by expressing his resentment over Russia’s status as a second-class power in “unipolar” world in which the United States calls the shots. This world, Putin said, “means in practice one thing: one centre of power, one force, one center of decision-making, a world of one master, one sovereign.”

This would imply that Russia’s opposition to American missile defense has, in fact, very little to do with Russian security, and a whole lot to do with the loss of Russian influence over its former satellite countries like Poland and the Czech Republic.

European Vacillation, Again

How then should the West respond to Russia? Well, probably not like Germany, at least not if European elites have any serious ambitious to turn the Europen Union into a serious player on the global stage.

In what many observers have come to expect from a Europe that is unable and unwilling to defend itself, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, has yet again chosen the path of appeasement instead of standing firm in the face of Russian intimidation.

In an interview on February 19 with the Handelsblatt newspaper, Steinmeier had the audacity to publicly criticize the United States over its missile defense project, from which Germany arguably stands to gain much more in terms of security than even America itself. In an assertion that Steinmeier himself knows is a lie, he accused Washington of not including Moscow in discussions of a proposed missile defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic. Because the proposed missile defense bases would be stationed “close to Russia, they should have been included in discussions earlier,” Steinmeier said. “Given the strategic nature of such a project, I would advocate proceeding carefully with intensive dialogue with all partners involved, whether directly or indirectly,” Steinmeier added.

But that was not all. Although American strategic planners have often stated that missile defenses in Central Europe are designed to protect its European allies from missile threats emanating from the Middle East, Steinmeier went on to dismiss any potential threat posed by Iranian rockets, saying Tehran did not possess the technology to make such an attack. Moreover, he also spoke out against any immediate new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear policies. “The most recent resolution of the UN Security Council does not contain any automatic mechanism for the situation where Iran does not fulfill its obligations,” Steinmeier said.

On the face of it, Steinmeier’s comments seem incredible, even laughable, were they not so serious. Is Germany’s vacillation in the face of Russian pressure another example of what European elites claim is their more “sophisticated” approach to international diplomacy? If so, European citizens should expect a distinctly less optimistic future than the one being promised by their leaders.

Europeans Still Need American Leadership

This might be a good time for Europeans to look back at their own recent history. During the 1990s, Moscow issued myriad threats to try to prevent the West from enlarging NATO to former countries of the Soviet bloc. And although there were many Europeans who equivocated in the face of Russian intimidation, cooler heads in the United States ignored those threats, and today Europe is more democratic, peaceful and secure than ever. Indeed, without the security guarantees provided by the expansion of NATO, it is unlikely that the enlargement of the European Union would have been possible.

For its part, Moscow not helped to build the sort of confidence that it now accuses the United States of jeopardizing. Russia, for example, was the largest exporter of arms to the developing world in 2006, with clients including “rogue” states like Syria and Venezuela. Indeed, Russia recently sold $700 million worth of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, which presumably will be used to defend Tehran’s nuclear program. Ironically, it is exactly the long-range Iranian missile threat to Europe that has prompted the United States to deploy the missile shield in Central Europe.

And then there are the increasingly nationalist policies emanating from Moscow today that are far more destabilizing to European security than American missile defenses. In a commentary titled “The Rewards Of a Larger NATO” published by the Washington Post on February 19, the authors admonish their readers to “stop pretending that Russia’s troubling emergence as an illiberal, increasingly authoritarian state driven by a form of Eurasian petro-nationalism is the result of Western policy. It is because of developments inside Russia over which the West has little control.”

The good news for the West is that President Ronald Reagan ignored the Soviets (as well as many wavering Europeans) when they asked him to abandon his Star Wars program. This was because Reagan had the innate wisdom to know that there must be value in what one’s opponent insists you forsake. Since the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative was launched in 1985, the United States has invested more than $85 billion on missile defense. And in this same tradition, President George W Bush will likewise remain resolute in the face of Russian scare tactics designed to blackmail America into abandoning missile defense.

In any case, European vacillation in the face of Russian intimidation will be proof positive to many Democrats and Republicans in Washington that Europeans still lack the maturity to assume a serious leadership role in global affairs. This implies that the stability of the international system will continue to depend on American leadership for well into the foreseeable future, even if Russia and its wavering friends in Europe would wish otherwise.

Soeren Kern, Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Relations, Strategic Studies Group, Madrid

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