Missile defense – is the end nigh for the reset?
Dmitri Medvedev’s sharp reminder that his country reserves the right to respond to America’s persistent dismissal of Russia’s concerns about its “star wars” scheme is being seen by some analysts as the end of the reset. Given the resounding achievements of the 2009-2010 reset policy, this is clearly not the case. Possible perhaps, but an end to the reset would require that Moscow withdraw from the New START, which would be completely counter to its interests. Russia is already below the ceilings allowed by the treaty, so it serves to limit US potential. And Medvedev only mentioned that possibility without emphasizing it. Another sign that there is no intention to seriously disrupt relations is that the Russian president did not broach the most important and sensitive issue – that of its continued co-operation on US transit into Afghanistan. A Russian refusal to continue working on that issue would have led to a serious crisis, but Moscow is far from aspiring to that.
Beyond popular interpretations that Medvedev’s statement was designed to boost prospects in Russia’s ongoing election campaign, what rationale could lie behind the timing and substance of his comments?
Let’s take a look at the practical measures being proposed. Experts tend to believe that some would be taken anyway, while others are clearly designed to attract political attention. The political dimension is more interesting. Medvedev’s statement came exactly one year after the NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon where the two sides agreed to discuss options for joint missile defense in Europe. This discussion continued quite intensively until summer, when NATO officially rejected Russia’s proposal on territorial defense. Later in the summer, the US dismissed Russian requests for a binding document stating that any future AMD would not be directed against Russia. The agenda of this round of discussions had been exhausted.
Why does Russia want to underline the failure of the talks? Because otherwise an unspoken assumption could emerge that the mere existence of discussions somehow legitimizes the US project, and that it has Russia’s tacit agreement. Now Medvedev has highlighted that the problem remains on the table and that it will be impossible to remove or bypass by ignoring its existence. It also means that if elections produce new leaders in the two countries, they will also be forced to deal with the issue if they want to press ahead with other elements of the bilateral pattern.
Why is Russia so determined? Obviously only the most crazy hawks could envisage a nuclear standoff and war between Russia and the US. But unfortunately there is as yet no other basic principle of strategic stability available except the threat of mutually-assured destruction, which means an inseparable connection between offensive and defensive elements of strategic deterrence. And as long as Russian and American nuclear super-arsenals exist, they will continue to scrutinize each other’s every move, because why else would such a stock of warheads be needed, except to destroy the old Cold War enemy? So the two sides are doomed to preserve the old pattern until and unless a new general approach can be worked out. The latter is not in sight, especially because the next 15 months will be devoted to election campaigns and the formulation of new political guidelines.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor–in–Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine (since 2002), member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
This article was originally published in Russia Today