Russia and missile defense in Eastern Europe

Pavel Podvig
Center for International Security and Cooperation
Stanford University

August 2009

In the past few months, the new U.S. administration has undertaken a number of steps to improve U.S.-Russian relations, in particular in the area of arms control and disarmament. Simultaneously, it initiated a separate review of the plan to deploy elements of its missile defense system in Eastern Europe – ten interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in Czech Republic, which emerged as a major contentious point in the U.S.-Russian relations.

The administration is apparently considering a number of alternative options, including the changes in configuration of the system, which would ensure that it can effectively counter missile threats in the region. Although the review is not directly linked to Russia’s concerns over missile defense, its outcome will certainly be an important factor in setting the tone of the U.S-Russian relations and in helping secure stronger Russia’s commitment to cooperation on a range of issues.

Russia’s opposition to U.S. missile defense plans cannot be attributed to a single specific factor. Rather, it is a product of a combination of political and technical considerations that reflect institutional interests and biases of the actors involved – Russia’s political leadership, defense industry, the military, and the foreign policy establishment. To complicate the problem, these interests are normally not articulated and there is almost no substantive discussion of missile defense issues in Russia. There is, however, one common element to all positions – they all assume that deployment of U.S. missile defense in Europe is a fundamental issue in U.S.-Russian relations and cannot be reduced to technical arguments. Whether this is justified or not, this means that any changes of the system configuration that would try to address Russia’s concern in a narrowly defined technical way – e.g. changes in the deployment area or a move toward mobile or ship-based interceptors – are unlikely to change Russia’s position on missile defense in a substantial way. Rather, Russia might see it as an attempt to circumvent its objections and to altogether exclude it from the discussion of missile defense and larger security issues.

The key element of Russia’s position on missile defense is the notion that the U.S. program is directed against Russia and that its primary goal is to undermine the strategic balance between Russia and the United States. This point is rarely disputed in Russia, partly because the national security discussion is defined in terms of cold-war style confrontation (often deliberately so), but largely because no Russian institution involved in security decision-making has any interest in dispelling this notion. To different extent they all share interest in framing the discussion about missile defense in terms of U.S.-Russian confrontation. Also, few have real interest in seeing the issue resolved.

Details of the Russian position include several elements that demonstrate significant differences in approach to the issue, but at the same time show that there is some room for mutual understanding and even cooperation:

First, Russia has always disputed the existence of missile threat that the U.S. missile defense is supposed to counter. The key assertion here is that a country cannot pose a serious threat unless it has a relatively mature ballistic missile program, which would be capable to produce “modern ballistic missiles”. Russia has been arguing that neither Iran nor North Korea has this capability or could achieve it in the next decade or so. While this position is in a significant disagreement with the U.S. threat analysis, Russia has been generally open to a bilateral dialogue about potential threats. If structured properly, this dialogue could bring a better understanding of the issue. For example, in a statement made in 2007, then Chief of General Staff Yuri Baluevskiy suggested that a successful space launch would be an indicator of maturity of a missile program. It is conceivable that a joint analysis of the successful Iranian space launch, conducted in February 2009, would have brought U.S. and Russian positions closer. In fact, some Russian military experts already admit that the Iranian missile development program should be taken seriously.

Then, Russia has expressed serious concerns about the open-ended nature of the U.S. program. While conceding that the initial deployment of ten interceptors and a radar does not represent a threat to the Russian strategic potential, it points out that the system can be expanded by deployment of additional interceptors and by an upgrade of the radar. This is a potentially the most difficult issue. Russia would probably not trust informal U.S. assurances of the limited scale of deployment, even if the United States would be ready to offer them. Legally binding limits are also unlikely to present a satisfactory solution – the ABM Treaty once provided them and the U.S. withdrawal from that treaty showed the limits of negotiated agreements. Russia appears to be ready to consider greater transparency in planning and deployment, coupled with verification measures as a way of addressing its concerns, but it is clearly uncomfortable with a situation in which there are no limits on the expansion of missile defense systems.

The degree to which Russia could influence the deployment of missile defense system, or rather lack of influence, is another important point of contention. While to a large extent it is an issue of limits on the scale of deployment, the U.S. determination to proceed with missile defense unilaterally over Russia’s objections does raise the larger issue of the nature of U.S.-Russian relations. Russia has long been advocating an approach to missile defense that would include consultations regarding the nature of threats and the choice of appropriate response. It tried to make specific proposals along these lines - the most recent one was the proposal to use its radars in Gabala and Armavir for threat assessment. Although these proposals are often designed to be an alternative to the U.S.-designed plans, they do indicate that Russia might be willing to participate in missile defense development if it has a more active role in the project.

The fact that the interceptors and the radar would be deployed close to the Russian national territory is also a sensitive issue. One assessment suggested that Russia considers deployment of the radar in Czech Republic is the most serious problem of the U.S. plan. At the same time, the issue seems to be largely symbolic. For example, the Czech radar would have virtually no capability to observe missile tests, conducted by Russia (unlike the HAVE STARE radar in Norway, which has the capability to track Russian SLBMs during flight tests).

None of the issues outlined above lends itself to a simple technical solution. In fact, a change in configuration of the system or in the mode of basing of interceptors is unlikely to address any of them. A shift toward, say, mobile ground-based or ship-based interceptors or relocation of the radar could probably address only the narrow issue of bases in Poland and Czech Republic. But that move alone might, in fact, create a larger controversy, giving rise to the arguments that mobile interceptors create a more flexible and therefore more capable system. Besides, despite the fact that the choice of these two countries made the missile defense particularly contentious, while the missile defense installations are deployed there, Russia has certain ability to influence the situation – it can justifiably demand transparency and verification measures or numerical limits on deployment. Should the missile defense elements be removed from Poland and Czech Republic, Russia would most likely lose that ability. This could, in fact, complicate the situation.

While Russia is certainly seeking to stop missile defense deployment, it appears to be open to some accommodation and cooperation with the United States, especially if it is centered on threat assessment and gives Russia a greater say in deliberations about responses to that threat. One promising point in that regard is a series of understandings reached at the 2+2 meeting in Moscow in October 2007. Apparently, Russia was willing to consider the idea, first suggested by Secretary Gates, of working on joint evaluation of the threat if the decision to deploy interceptors would be postponed until that threat materializes. Russia’s offer to use its early-warning radars for this threat assessment could also be an important element of an arrangement that could help reach a better understanding.

Finally and most importantly, even if the United States may believe that joint work on threat assessment is not a substitute for an active missile defense program, it could build support for U.S.-Russian cooperation among the military and the defense industry that would be involved in this project. This could eventually create the institutional support for a broader cooperation, including one on missile defense, which is so clearly lacking at the moment.