Valdai Club 6: Missile Defense

The conference took place at the same time as the G8 summit in Deauxville, which included a statement on possibilities for missile defense cooperation between Russia and the US/Europe. The discussions on this topic at Valdai, however, left me very much pessimistic about the likelihood for such cooperation. There were two events directly related to missile defense. The first was a panel discussion on May 26th, with presentations by Oksana Antonenko of IISS, Mesut Hakki Casin of Yeditepe University in Istanbul, and Aleksandr Stukalin of Kommersant-Daily, followed by a discussion. The second was a meeting that same evening with a senior MOD official who has some responsibility for missile defense. As you will see from the report, the tone of these two meetings could not have been more different. (Note: I don’t have detailed notes on the presentation by Casin — it focused on how important missile defense cooperation would be for international security)

Panel on building a European missile defense system

Oksana Antonenko — Prospects for NATO-Russia missile defense cooperation

Antonenko provided a very optimistic assessment of the possibilities for including meaningful Russian participation in a European missile defense system. She began by reviewing the history of international cooperation on missile defense, noting several promising initiatives dating back to the Clinton presidency have been signed but never fully implemented, including the RAMOS program and the JDEC program to exchange early warning data on launches. Theater missile defense cooperation within the NATO-Russia Council was thus the 3rd stage of cooperation. This allowed for significant progress, including joint exercises. A live fire exercise that was to be held in 2008 in Germany would have brought cooperation to a new level, but it was canceled because of the Georgia war and the entire program was suspended. As a result, many of the experienced people involved in that cooperation left.

The relationship became much more confrontational because of the Bush administration’s third site initiative. Obama has tried to make missile defense a driver for cooperation as part of his reset policy. The focus has been on a phased adaptive approach, which more gradual than the Bush plan and is designed to  develop the system in parallel with the evolution of potential threats.

Antonenko went into some detail on this approach and its logic. Currently, Iran has medium range missile that can reach targets 2000 km away. This range could be improved over time to 4500 km. Missiles with this range would present a potential threat to Europe. The response is divided into four phases. In the first phase, which is available now, response is based on Aegis sea-based missiles. The second phase would be ready in 2015 and would include the SM-3 interceptor site in Romania. Phase 3 would come online in 2018 and would consist of the SM-3 Block IIA missiles based in Poland. Phase 4 would be ready in 2020 and would allow for an early intercept capability versus MRBM and ICBM threats. This is the earliest time frame for European missile defense to have even a potential impact on Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Antonenko saw the decision made at NATO’s Lisbon summit to establish a missile defense initiative to protect all of Europe to be developed in cooperation with Russia as a potential game-changer in Russia-NATO relations. While NATO wants an integrated system, President Medvedev proposed a sectoral approach, with clearly delimited zones of responsibility.

Antonenko sees some clear benefits for both NATO and Russia of cooperation with each other. A system that incorporates Russia would have much stronger capabilities. The Russian radars at Armavir and Gabala (in Azerbaijan) can detect missiles about 100 seconds after they launch, which is much earlier than any other existing capability. On the other hand, Russia is far behind the United States on interception capability. The S-500 interceptor missile system currently in development is still at least ten years away from serial production. Russia would also be more secure if it is able to see the system’s capabilities and to influence developments from the inside.

Antonenko described the main obstacles to cooperation as a lack of trust on both sides, Russian concerns about the system’s impact on its nuclear deterrence capability, Russian opposition to having more NATO and US military infrastructure near its borders, and Central European suspicions of Russian intentions.  These are all essentially political problems. There are also major conceptual differences between Europe and the US, since Europeans don’t really see Iran as a likely threat but want to be part of the system. They don’t really believe in the need for Phase 4 since they don’t think Iran can actually develop ICBMs. The United States, on the other hand, only cares about Phase 4.

Despite these obstacles, Antonenko was optimistic in her assessment of the possibilities for cooperation, arguing that there was political will for cooperation on both sides, the technology could be developed, and all sides see advantages to being inside the system rather than outside it.

She argued that the best way forward is to build trust by starting with small steps toward practical cooperation while leaving some of the larger ideological disagreements to be resolved later, when suspicions have eased. Her recommendations for such steps included opening the long-delayed joint data exchange centers and resuming joint BMD exercises. The dispute over whether to build an integrated or sectoral system might be solved by allowing each side to defend its own territories, but with allowances for double protection for some countries near the sectoral boundary.

Aleksandr Stukalin and CAST — Russian views on cooperation prospects

The Russian participants in the discussion were much less optimistic about the prospects for cooperation. Aleksandr Stukalin’s presentation focused on the disagreements between the two sides and the potential risks to the relationship from too much emphasis on trying to bridge these differences.

He argued that given how far apart the two sides’ positions are, the disagreement could cause problems in other parts of the relationship. The US is absolutely convinced of the threat and wants protection for its territory, while Russia is just as convinced that there is no threat and that therefore US missile defense must be aimed at Russia. Each side has tried repeatedly to convince the other of these basic issues. The Russians see no immediate threat of delivery vehicles being developed in either North Korea or Iran and argue that if a threat were to develop in the future, there would be time to build a system at that point.

Stukalin thinks there’s no way to convince the Russians that an American missile defense system is not aimed against Russia. He pointed out that most Russian generals see the SM-3 as having some kind of magical powers, though knowledgeable people outside the military such as Yuri Solomonov, the former director of the Moscow Thermotechnical Institute, realize that it can’t actually pose a threat to Russia.

The current Russian position is based on this somewhat irrational fear of the level of US threat to Russia. Russian leaders want guarantees, but haven’t yet worked out how to negotiate what they want in a way that will allow them to be taken seriously. The sectoral division proposal would have Russia defending northeastern Europe, including Poland, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia. But such a division would not make those states feel particularly secure, given the historical sensitivities in the region, and in any case Russia does not want to base its interceptors on foreign soil.

All that Russia really has to offer to the European system is the Gabala radar. The Armavir radar is focused primarily on the Mediterranean, not on Iran or North Korea. The future Kaliningrad radar station will also look at Europe. Russia hasn’t made any offers to build a radar looking south. Its satellites are not in good enough shape to offer a serious contribution. The S-500 interceptor system will not be ready for a long time. So there’s no reason to expect much from these discussions except more talk. Neither side is ready for serious cooperation. Meanwhile the failure of talks could lead to heated rhetoric that could threaten to return relations to the level of the Cold War. The only way to make anything happen is with more high-level stimulus. Negotiations at a staff level are likely to have only a negative effect.

In addition to the three presentations, participants were given a printed briefing put together by CAST and entitled “Missile Defense: Implications for Global and Russian Security.” This briefing described the current state of missile defense capabilities and plans. It also made a few more controversial points:

According to this briefing, missile defense is an effort by the US to try to restore the sense of invulnerability it had before the 1960s. While the current American missile defense system is genuinely aimed against missile threats posed by “pariah” countries, that is only half the truth. At present, the United States has no technological or economic capability to create a fully capable missile defense system that could protect against Russian ICBMs. But the current system is just a necessary stage on the way to developing a fully capable system aimed against Russia. Furthermore, declarations that the system only aims to defend Russia against pariah states is an attempt to disguise its intermediary nature.

Because it is important for Russian security to preserve the efficacy of its nuclear deterrence capability and because the American missile defense system will pose a threat to Russian security in the long term, Russia must respond to this threat. Given the slow pace of progress, Russia has a window of opportunity over the next 20 years to ensure its security. Political or diplomatic means cannot stop the program, because of its essentially theological nature for many American planners. The idea of a joint missile defense system aimed against pariah states has no future — it is unrealistic and even harmful, as it indirectly legitimizes Washington’s actions. The only realistic and credible response to the US missile defense program is to improve the size and capabilities of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Much of this same argument was made by Ruslan Pukhov in an op-ed published in the Moscow Times while we were at the conference. Needless to say, this view very much contradicts the optimistic views proposed by Oskana Antonenko.

Meeting with MOD official

The MOD official that we met in the evening reinforced the prevailing view that cooperation on missile defense would be very hard, if not impossible, to achieve. He argued that Antonenko’s proposal to focus on practical cooperation first is impossible with first resolving the major philosophical disagreements over missile defense. He dismissed any possibility of Iran posing a threat to Europe, arguing that its main concern is Israel. And he argued that there is no way to have cooperation without first coming to an agreement on the nature of the threat. For Russia, the real potential missile threat is Pakistan, not Iran. This has to be taken into account.

He then went on to discuss the lack of trust on both sides of the discussion. He reiterated that Russia needs guarantees that the US won’t use its weapons against Russia. These guarantees must take the form of a treaty that will set out the parameters of interactions between the two sides. Russians want to know why NATO and the US want to strengthen their military forces near Russia’s borders. They also need to know why the US refuses to accept limits on missile defense capabilities, such as interceptor speed, given its repeated insistence that the defenses will not be targeted against Russian ICBMs.

He then made the following proposal: If there is a problem with potential attacks from third countries using short and medium range missiles, the two sides should agree on the parameters for cooperation to deal with this problem. What is the necessary interceptor speed? Fast interceptors are not needed unless the target is a long range missile. If the US is worried about Iran developing ICBMs in the future, We can agree to set these parameters in place for ten years, then review them depending on the threat situation at that point.

But he argued that NATO does not want an official agreement. They listen to Russian views, but don’t actually hear them. Russia’s position on missile defense has evolved. As he put it, “Before, we just said no. Now we say yes, but.” He reiterated yet again the need for guarantees that the system will not be aimed against Russia. Furthermore, any agreement on missile defense must have the power of law, because Russia does not want to depend on its relationship with a specific leader. The Russian side wants such a treaty to spell out the number of interceptors permitted, their locations, and their speed, and also to have a prohibition on the use of space for missile defense.

In conclusion, he went on a riff that to me contains the essence of the problem from the Russian point of view. The following quote is more or less verbatim: “Am I from Iraq, am I a defeated country? Let us respect each other. Why don’t you want to assuage my concerns? Bush offered transparency measures that Obama doesn’t offer. When we have discussions, ideas are rejected just because they come from the Russian side.”


The statement above summarizes a certain attitude toward the West, and especially toward the United States, that was at the core of Russian foreign policy for most of the last 20 years. It has faded, and is no longer the most prominent view in Moscow. Sometime during Putin’s term, the Russian government shifted from a focus on earning respect as the key driver of its foreign policy to other ends, including influence in the world, increasing security on Russia’s borders and, perhaps most significantly, ensuring Russia’s economic growth and concurrent increases in its leaders’ personal wealth. Yet the resentment at perceived past slights is still there and emerges most frequently on issues that relate to the old US-Russian/Soviet agenda. Missile defense is certainly in that list.

I left Valdai very much pessimistic about the ability of the two sides to reach a compromise on missile defense cooperation. Pukhov is right in arguing that missile defense is a theology for certain parts of the US elite. Washington politics will ensure that the US will not accept any limits on missile defense for the purpose of assuaging Russian fears. At the same time, Russian leaders also have a theology — they want to maintain their nuclear deterrent against the United States. The fear of a nuclear attack on Russia from the US is if anything more irrational than US fears of an Iranian missile strike on the US. The only possible rational interpretation is that Russian leaders don’t actually believe that the missile defense system threatens Russia, but pretend they do in order to show their importance in world politics.

In any case, I see virtually no chance of the small practical steps advocated by Antonenko leading to the trust necessary to develop a true cooperative relationship on missile defense. The best we can hope for is that the rhetoric remains focused on cooperation rather than confrontation, so that the two sides can develop real cooperation on other issues that have a much more significant near-term impact on the security of both countries.

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