Missile defence system threatens nuclear balance of power
On November 23 the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has made a harsh statement on Russian countermeasures to the NATO missile defence system. Among other things Dmitry Medvedev mentioned denunciation of the START treaty and deploying Iskander tactical missile systems in Kalinigrad region.
Valdaiclub.com interview with Professor Anatol Lieven, director of Research on Terrorism and International Relations at King’s College, London.
Is it possible to say that a new cycle of confrontation between Russia and the United States, or Russia and the West in general, has started?
It’s certainly not as good as it was a year or so ago, but it was always clear that missile defence would be a problem, so that’s not new. The other thing to keep in mind is that, from this point of view, things will get even worse if the Republicans win next year, because the Republicans have fetishized missile defence – they are absolutely devoted to it. Nevertheless, in other ways the underlying dynamics of the relationship are better, above all, because the United States’ pressure to expand into the former Soviet Union has now greatly diminished or even ended. I believe that will most probably remain the case whatever happens simply because of American poverty and commitments elsewhere.
Does NATO’s missile system really pose a serious threat to Russia’s strike capability? And does the missile defence system influence the global balance of power?
At present and in the near future, the answer is “No, it doesn’t.” This is a system or an approach that has been plagued with innumerable failures. It is a very widespread opinion among experts that this system will not, in fact, work, even in the limited way that it’s meant to, let alone on a scale large enough to negate a Russian military strike. The other point is: it’s almost impossible to imagine circumstances in which this is strategically relevant, in which Russia and the United States would find themselves in the circumstances of a nuclear exchange. I cannot see any issue that would bring Russia and the United States to that point. The fear on the Russian side is different. The possession of nuclear weapons remains one of Russia’s last claims to a superpower status. Anything that affects that tends to provoke an emotional reaction, which isn’t necessarily wholly rational. But the other issue is that if in future it becomes clear that this system, or something developed on the basis of this system could work, then, of course, other countries, namely China, a long time in the future, might develop such systems. If China could negate the threat of Russian nuclear retaliation, the strategic results for Russia could be very severe. Eastern Siberia relies on nuclear weapons, not on any soldiers that Russia could possibly mobilize. In other words, when it comes to nuclear deterrent I think Russia is, in the long run, looking at China, not the United States.
Does China have the ability to mount such a system in the near or distant future?
In the short to medium term, no. In the short to medium term it is by no means clear whether the U.S. system will even work. Clearly, in the long run, if the U.S. system would work, then, yes, the Chinese can certainly develop such a system, but only a long time from now. But governments are supposed to consider their security not just in the short to medium term but also in the long-term.
Are the measures mentioned by the Russian president justified – for example, the denunciation of the missile treaty or the deployment of Iskander systems in the Kaliningrad Region? Are they justified, and can they influence the position of the United States?
Yes, they are legally justified. What the United States is doing is clearly a threat, if only in the long term, to the nuclear balance of power. As such, it challenges the agreed order that Moscow and Washington drew up a long time ago to govern their respective nuclear deterrents. Whether this is politically wise seems to me questionable, particularly because, in the end, Russia and the United States really don’t need each other very much. I mean, the United States may well do so with regard to Afghanistan. I would say that putting pressure on the United States concerning supplies to Afghanistan would be a wiser Russian move, because the problem about these threats concerning missiles in Europe is that it also frightens the Europeans. Russia really does need the Europeans for trade, for investment, for a stable energy market, and so forth. I very much doubt that it’s worth alarming the Europeans by new missile deployments just for the sake of an influence on the United States, which may not happen anyway.