Russia-US Disagreements on Missile Defense Won't Overturn The "Reset"

The source of the problem is Russian concern that US missile defense systems could weaken the Russian strategic missile force. The Pentagon says that US missile defenses, as planned, would have little or no capability against Russian missiles. I personally am persuaded by the Pentagon’s arguments, but the Russian military is not. interview with Steven PIFER, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe Director, Arms Control Initiative.

What is the main reason behind the decision to deploy four US Aegis ships in Spain?

The Obama administration announced in September 2009 that it would reconfigure US missile defense plans for Europe, adopting the “Phased Adaptive Approach” that would provide increasing capability to defend Europe against ballistic missiles, particularly against an Iranian ballistic missile threat. Phase I of this approach, which the administration said would start in 2011, involves the deployment of US. Aegis ships equipped with Standard SM-3 missile interceptors in the region, particularly the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The reason for deploying four ships in Spain is straight-forward: in order to have two ships at sea and on station, the US. Navy needs to base four ships in Spain (the other two would normally be in port or training). Bear in mind that missile defense is not the sole mission of these ships. Given the lengthy time required to transit the Atlantic Ocean, the US. Navy would likely need six-eight ships based in the United States in order to have two ships on station in or near the eastern Mediterranean. Deploying ships out of Spain means the US. Navy needs fewer ships to carry out its mission.

The agreement marks “an important step forward to protect NATO territories against missile threats”. What threats the sides of the agreement meant?

In part due to Russian and Turkish sensitivities, NATO tries to avoid citing Iran as the source of concern when it talks about ballistic missile threats to Europe. But there is little doubt that the US. “Phased Adaptive Approach” and the NATO decision to embrace territorial defense against ballistic missiles are driven by worry about the threat posed by Iranian ballistic missiles, particularly given Iran’s parallel effort to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Were Iran to halt is ballistic missile program that might well have an impact on NATO missile defense plans.

As far as I can see, the decision to deploy the Aegis ships to Spain has nothing to do with the “Arab spring.” Had the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere not taken place, I suspect this agreement would still have been concluded. It lets the US. Navy take on its missile defense mission in Europe with four ships instead of six or eight – no small consideration, given the cost of Aegis-class warships.

How would you assess this decision, taking into account the agreement reached at Lisbon summit last year between Russia and NATO to cooperate on building a US–planned anti-missile network in Europe?

There is a disconnect between, on the one hand, meeting the timeline laid out for the deployment of missile defenses in Europe and, on the other hand, the desire for NATO and Russia to find agreement on missile defense cooperation. The “Phased Adaptive Approach” was laid out in 2009, and steps are now being taken to implement it, such as the Spain basing decision, Turkey’s agreement to host a missile defense radar, and the agreement with Romania on future basing of land-based Standard SM-3 missile interceptors there. The plan is moving forward, as it has to if it is going to meet the timeline, which is shaped in part by concern that the Iranian ballistic missile threat is growing. Unfortunately, because NATO and Russia have not yet agreed on missile defense cooperation, Russia has no opportunity to shape the proposed missile defense system. But it is unrealistic for Moscow to expect that NATO will freeze everything until it agrees to a cooperation plan.

The source of the problem is Russian concern that US missile defense systems could weaken the Russian strategic missile force. The Pentagon says that US missile defenses, as planned, would have little or no capability against Russian missiles. I personally am persuaded by the Pentagon’s arguments, but the Russian military is not. So, more work and discussions are needed.

In the meantime, Russia has said that it would not enter a cooperation agreement without “legal guarantees” that US/NATO missile defenses would not be pointed at Russian ballistic missiles. Even if it wished to, there is no way the Obama administration could provide this; a legal agreement would require Senate ratification, and the current Senate will approve nothing that looks even remotely like a limitation on missile defense. That’s simply a reality. What the Obama administration says it is prepared to offer is a political assurance at the highest level.

Hopefully, the United States, NATO and Russia will find a solution to the current impasse. When it comes to practical cooperation – questions such as a defense technical cooperation agreement, transparency, joint exercises and the creation of two joint centers to share data and plan further integration – there reportedly is considerable convergence of views between the sides. A cooperative missile defense would provide a great window for the Russian military to view and understand US and NATO missile defense capabilities; hopefully, that would allay any concerns that those systems could threaten the Russian strategic deterrent.

How will the deployment of US ships in Spain and an early warning system in Turkey affect the prospects for further “reset” in Russia-US relations?

The deployment of US ships in Spain and a warning radar in Turkey are steps to implement a plan announced more than two years ago, a plan that initially seemed to be welcome in Russia, because the “Phased Adaptive Approach” posed less of a potential threat to Russian strategic missiles than the Bush administration’s plan. That plan would have deployed ground-based interceptors – which have a much longer range than Standard SM-3 missiles – in Poland and an associated radar in the Czech Republic that had a 360 degree field of view.

Rather than focusing on these implementing steps, the principal question is whether Washington and Moscow, followed by NATO and Russia, can find agreement on missile defense cooperation. That would be a big plus for US-Russian and NATO-Russian relations; it could even help to erase the Cold War stereotypes that linger. If there is no agreement on cooperation, the missile defense issue could become more contentious on the bilateral US-Russia agenda and will require careful management. But it seems to me that the “reset” has done a lot to develop a broader, more positive and hopefully sustainable US-Russia relationship. I don’t believe that disagreement on missile defense could overturn all of that.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.