The proposed U.S. missile-defense system in Europe remains a major sticking point in relations with Russia: the recent NATO-Russia Council meeting (July 4) chose to postpone further debate, apparently until after the next NATO summit and into the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. A week after that meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a European Institute-sponsored event in Washington that the impasse on missile defense is a great “impediment” in a generally upward trend in U.S.-Russian ties.
As he implied, an agreement reached in the coming months or the new year then would be a foreign-policy success for President Barack Obama – both with Russia, the European allies and with domestic opinion as a step toward implementing his pledges of progress to reduce nuclear-weapons tensions.
Lavrov did not hold out any clear hopes for an early breakthrough on this long-running debate. In fact, he complained to the audience that Washington had mislead Russia by promising a joint common threat analysis as the basis for practical steps toward implementing the designed system. Despite this agreement, he said, the U.S. has proceeded with its own initial blueprint without any common threat assessment. (U.S. sources contest his account.) In any event, Lavrov called for a “legally binding" commitment that the system would not be permitted to “compromise Russia’s security” i.e. its nuclear deterrent.
Looking for ways to surmount this persistent deadlock, a possible key has been identified by Samuel Charap of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Mikhail Troitskiy from Moscow State Institute of International Relations. In a joint article, they say that in the argument about missile defense, MAD logic “is at the core of this dispute.” Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD) ought to be obsolete for the U.S and Russia, they argue, but it is not, especially in Moscow.
This doctrine, credited with helping avoid nuclear conflict during the cold war, requires each power to rely on deterrence based on a “second-strike capability” – meaning its arsenal could survive a first strike and deliver devastating retaliation. According to the article, fears linger in the Kremlin about how to live with the potential demise of MAD.
In Moscow’s strategic community, NATO’s planned ballistic missile-defense system (especially in its final fourth phase due to come on line in 2020) might curtail Moscow’s second-strike” capability. Western officials contend that this threat does not exist: the revised missile-defense plan – put forward by the Obama administration in 2009 as the European Phased-Adaptive Approach – would always be small enough for the Russian missile force to be able to “overwhelm” the defense, as this EI blog post explains.
But this has not allayed Russian concerns, including their worries that an additional sudden “break-out” phase could quickly add more NATO radar and interceptor capabilities that could neutralize Russian ballistic missiles. Hence the Russian demand for a treaty-like guarantee – a step that seems politically impossible in the current situation in Washington, where the recent, very limited NuStart accord on strategic weapons was only ratified with difficulty by the Senate in the lame duck session after Congressional elections in November 2010.
In this inauspicious atmosphere for treaties, Chrarap and Troitskiy see a possible way forward: NATO could provide a unanimous political declaration stating the objective of the system is to prevent missile threats from the Middle East and not to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent. This solemn guarantee, while not legally binding, would have reassurance value by demonstrating a public NATO consensus. The consensus itself would be a barrier against a U.S.-led “break-out” to a wider anti-missile system. And the process of reassurance could be deepened and strengthened by an accompanying preparatory dialogue with Moscow.
One attraction of this idea is that it could take account of presidential politics in 2012 in the U.S., where Obama runs for re-election and would like a success for his policy “reset” with Russia.
For Moscow, the idea, as put forward by the authors, could be portrayed as a step toward in the larger strategic dialogue proposed by Russia’s leaders about creating a new framework for stability across Europe and the Atlantic. As formulated initially, Moscow’s call for a new “treaty on security in Europe” has been unwelcomed in the West as unwieldy and untimely and therefore shunted off.
But many analysts recommend renewed efforts to work with Moscow and to face up to longer-run, broader questions about the future of nuclear deterrence. The matter of missile defense may provide a realistic stepping-stone on both these questions.
In his talk at the European Institute, Lavrov emphasized that a joint common analysis should precede practical implementation of the system, including its design and other military specifications. This approach had been promised by Washington, he said, but then ignored in practice. In a joking manner, Lavrov complained that “they don’t even give us the benefit of the doubt” in refusing to pursue the agreed course of consultations and then cooperation. However, Wikileaks documents of a December 2009 U.S.-Russian Joint Threat Assessment Meeting reveal that a joint analysis did take place. The documents indicate, for instance, that Washington and Moscow have different estimates of missile threats from Iran and North Korea
Yet Russia’s insistence on common analyses remains, and a dialogue about a solemn NATO declaration might provide some response to Russian concerns.
Such a NATO-Russia discussion about nuclear deterrence fits into the larger context of calls, notably in the U.S., for a “nuclear zero” to eliminate nuclear weapons. The argument was put forward by four former U.S. statesmen in op-eds (most recently in the Wall Street Journal): in these articles, former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn plead for a new form of deterrence that decreases nuclear risks, notably the threat of nuclear-weapons proliferation. Any such new basis for global deterrence could be framed initially by cooperation between Russia and the U.S.
In the view of these elder statesmen and strategists, the challenge of reshaping deterrence without nuclear weapons will be a long process, starting with the role of “non-nuclear means of deterrence to effectively prevent conflict and increase stability in troubled regions.” Acknowledging the complexity of the change, they conclude succinctly that “a world without nuclear weapons will not simply be today's world minus nuclear weapons.”
By contrast, Charap and Troitskiy, in their plan, do not seek to eliminate nuclear deterrence. Instead, they focus on removing the U.S.-Russian-European bone of contention about missile defense. While less ambitious, they argue that easing Russian concerns about missile defense is key in laying the foundation for broader and sustainable strategic cooperation.
-- By European Affairs