U.S., Russia at odds over missile defense

Dale Herspring: Washington’s assurances don’t calm Moscow’s fears

By A Contributor

Few topics are more confusing or important in our relations with Russia than missile defense. Our two nations are in position to improve relations in almost every other area, but the most important aspect of bilateral relations is the security/military sphere. Unfortunately, our relations there are at a standstill. Progress in this area would vastly improve our bilateral ties.

For many years the U.S. government has been working on missile defense — developing missiles that will shoot down incoming missiles. That sounds logical. The problem with regard to Russia is the START Treaty, in which we agreed to bilateral deterrence — making both sides equally vulnerable to a potential attack. Thus, if the Russians attacked us, we could retaliate, and vice-versa.

Now, however, the United States has a new enemy — Iran — which could acquire nuclear weapons. If Iran gets ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States or overseas military bases, the United States won’t pretend there is no threat.  Washington is determined to create a missile defense system that will deter the Iranians.

That upsets the Russians, who recall U.S. determination to prevent Iran from getting missiles and wonder about their own security. As they note, missile systems that are capable of shooting down Iranian missiles will also be able to shoot down Russian ICBMs. Russia argues th at it doesn’t want war with the United States. In fact, it wants better relations. But Russia must assume the worst when it comes to missile defense — that the day might come when the United States will be able to shoot down Russia’s nuclear ballistic missiles.

Washington knows of the Russians’ concern and has tried to meet them halfway. There are problems, however.  One is the U.S. Senate. When the START Treaty was signed, the Senate added a rider that said no classified information could be shared with Russia. That created a big problem. How are we going to develop a joint missile defense system if we don’t share information?  One proposal, which I thought was a good one, was to permit Russian officers access to our missile sites in Poland and Romania. They could assure Moscow that the U.S. missiles were aimed only at Iran.  Unfortunately, it was rejected by the U.S. side. 

The United States did make an effort to share information via NATO. NATO officials recently visited Moscow with supposedly sensitive information on the missile silos that would be of great interest to the Russians. Yet the response of the Russian general staff was that the information was “useless and unsubstantial.”

It is important to note that while Russian officials are loathe to say so publicly, the Russian Army has seen better days, and while a U.S. missile defense would be a problem under the best of circumstances, the sad shape of Russia’s military makes matter worse.

Russian President-Elect Vladimir Putin and current President Dmitri Medvedev have been outspoken on this topic. Both have made clear that missile defense is the key to U.S.-Russian relations. Putin was to meet with President Barack Obama in Chicago in May.  However, the meeting was canceled, wisely in my view, because there is no sign of progress on the missile defense issue. Holding a meeting accompanied by polemics would only hurt the relationship.

We have trains going in opposite directions. Russia wants the United States to sign documents placing restrictions on U.S. missiles, including those aboard ships.  The United States has consistently refused to do so. The ability to move Navy and air Force assets is critical to national security. 

This is a difficult situation. Russia remains focused on the Cold War.  Moscow must be in a position to at least theoretically battle the United States. Unfortunately, we have reached a point at which Washington is not particularly concerned about an attack from Russia. Washington is focused on Iran.

Still, my Russian contacts may be right. We may find ourselves at war with Iran, and after that mess is over, Russia may emerge more important to us, although I suspect China will continue to be our primary concern.

It is difficult to resolve even simple matters during a presidential election. I was asked recently whether I think the Jackson-Vanik amendment should be dumped. I do. But given that everything the administration does opens it to attack means that it won’t do anything even remotely controversial before the election.Whoever wins can take a number of steps in the first year, including, perhaps, missile defense.

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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