Russians aren’t going to attack

Threats actually reflect worry of missile launch by NATO

By Dale R. Herspring

From newspapers May 3 and 4, one might have gotten the impression that the chief of Russia’s General Staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, said that if NATO stations our air defense missiles in Poland and Bulgaria to protect from an attack by Iran, Russia would attack those missiles.  It is not that simple.

A few words on what is involved might be in order.  Both the United States and Russia have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear warheads. These number in the hundreds and could reach either country about 30 minutes after they are fired.  Both countries have agreed to leave themselves vulnerable to an attack by the other.  Neither side had any defense against such an attack.

Conservatives and some liberals in the United States have long been unhappy with this situation. As a result, the United States has worked on defensive systems off and on. The problem is that while Russia retains its nuclear weapons and remains a potential military threat, the country collapsed in the 1990s.  So who cares about the big bad Russian bear?

Then came Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles. Suddenly, the United States had a real threat.  Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that Iran has no intention of backing down in the face of tremendous Western economic pressure. As a result, it was time for America to develop defensive systems to protect us and our allies.

We went to work to create a new category of missiles that could shoot down Iranian missiles if they ventured over Europe or headed toward the United States.  Then we learned that the Russians are very upset over the possibility that we are developing such missiles.

The big political question is why. After all, we have made clear that these air defense missiles would be aimed solely at Iran. But, the Russians ask, what if political conditions change? They have two concerns. First, they worry that “defensive” missiles near Rusßsian territory could be used to shoot down Russian missiles.  Furthermore, it is not just the missiles in Eastern Europe that scare the Russians. They also worry about U.S. Navy ships that carry the same kind of missiles. After all, U.S. ships could easily be moved toward Russian soil.

Now the second issue.  It is hard to explain how far behind Russia is technologically. Its military in many ways is still stuck in the 1980s.  Almost nothing was done in the 1990s, and Russia recently decided to devote 23 trillion rubles by 2020 to modernize its armed forces.  Unfortunately, as one Russian writer noted, “We can catch up to the Americans by 2025.  The problem, however, is that they will not stand still, and by that date they will be even further ahead of us.”

Which brings us back to Makarov. His comment should be taken as a sign of frustration and Russian technological weakness. Markarov is not threatening war.  He is trying to scare Western politicians to get them to agree to a plan that Moscow would find more accommodating.  To do that, we would have to give the Russians the blueprints to our missiles.  That’s highly unlikely.

So what will happen? My guess is that unless President Obama has a concession to offer the Russians during a second term (as he suggested in his impromptu comments to then Russian President Vladimir Medvedev), little progress will occur and U.S. -Russian relations will probably remain tense.

It is always hard to predict what a politician will do, but Mitt Romney appears uninterested in reaching an agreement with Russia on this topic. The major problem we will continue to deal with regarding Russia is its technological weakness.  It is difficult to have a meaningful relationship when one side is superior and the other believes it should be equal but is far from it.

In any case, any suggestion that Russia would attack if we deploy these missiles is silly.  That could well set off World War III. I remember a comment made by a Russian general. We were talking about the possibility of war in Europe.  He looked at me and said, “We want no part of a war in Europe.  What good is Paris to us if it is full of radiation for the 500 years?” 

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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