A Summer Hit: Are Russia And NATO Moving Toward A Collision Over European Missile Defense?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

By all accounts, the last year was a successful one for Russian diplomacy, with the signing and ratification of U.S.-Russia nuclear reduction treaty commonly known as New START, being evidently the most recognizable achievement.  Yet, there is a growing consensus among the analysts that New START was the only “low-hanging fruit” yielded by the policy of “reset” between the two countries.  More complicated issues still lie ahead, and given the Obama administration’s preoccupation with domestic affairs and the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East, there is little reason to expect any serious improvements, much less breakthroughs, in the bilateral relationship coming to life this year.  However, the year 2011 might well go down in history as a “year of NATO.”       

Of course this is not to say that nothing happened between Russia and the 28 NATO member countries in the year 2010.  Actually, a number of positive developments occurred.  There has been a dramatic improvement in Russia’s relations with Poland; a long-awaited maritime border treaty with Norway has been signed; and a number of important steps have been taken towards visa-free travel between Russia and the EU.  Finally, at the November summit of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) — attended by the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – the two sides issued an important statement claiming that “the security of NATO and Russia is intertwined.”  Moreover, the Alliance invited Russia to participate in the development of European missile defense system. 

The growing rapport between Russia and NATO reflects the changing attitude that the leadership and the people of Russia harbor vis-à-vis the Alliance.  True, Russia still objects to NATO’s eastward expansion.  (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov keeps pointing out, however, that it’s the expansion, not NATO itself, that is viewed in Russia as a threat to its national security.)  Yet, the Kremlin seems to be warming up to the argument, recently articulated by prominent academic, Alexei Arbatov, that despite the geographic expansion, the 28 member states of the Alliance today have less weaponry and fewer troops than possessed by the 16 original members 20 years ago; besides, the bulk of NATO forces are not deployed on the newly acquired territories.  In other words, there are no signs of the Alliance’s military focus on Russia.  

Russia and NATO share many of the same challenges facing the Euro-Atlantic community at large: threats of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; spreading Islamic radicalism; trafficking of arms, drugs and people; potential disruption of energy supply routes.  In addition to these common concerns, some Alliance members represent Russia’s largest and most trustful trade partners. 

On the other hand, there is no shortage of irritants in the relationship.  The Alliance is unhappy with Russia’s 2007 suspension of its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, and NATO considers reinstating this treaty one of its top priorities.  NATO is also troubled with the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad region.  In addition, some member countries, in particular from Central and Eastern Europe, keep complaining about Russia’s alleged possessiveness over the post-Soviet space.  Russia, for its part, recently voiced objections to NATO’s intentions to create military plans for the defense of the Baltic countries against Russia. 

Yet, it is a disagreement over European missile defense that has potential to cause a serious set back in Russia’s relations with NATO.

Russia insists that the European defense system must be a joint venture with shared responsibilities, information exchange, threat assessment and decision-making, but with each side holding its own “button” for the launch of interceptor missiles.  Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, calls this kind of plan a “two key arrangement.”

Russia’s insistence on building a common ABM infrastructure stems from the fear that in the future, the NATO system could be potentially used against Russia itself.  This sentiment is exacerbated by Moscow’s skepticism about NATO’s perennial claims that the new system will be targeted primarily at Iran.  Instead, Russian military experts caution that a system over which Russia has no control may threaten Russia’s second-strike capability.       

So far, NATO has been rejecting the “two key” approach.  Instead, the Alliance insists on building two independent, though tightly coordinated, systems.  In the core of NATO’s unwillingness to accommodate Russia’s concerns lies a concern of its own: according to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, collective defense is the sole responsibility of NATO member states and can’t be “outsourced” to any outside partner.  From NATO’s perspective, the only workable solution would be restricting the cooperation to information exchange and possible synchronization of two independent systems.  Not to mention the fact that any agreement postulating a decision-making role for Russia will never be accepted by conservatives in the United States. 

Despite continued talks about possible compromises, not much time is left to iron out the differences: a decision on missile defense cooperation is expected to be reached at a meeting of NATO-Russia Council's Defense Ministers in June. 

How is Russia expected to react if its proposal gets rejected?  Rogozin suggests that Russia will have to develop and implement new attacking systems capable of overcoming any ABM defense system, an opinion recently echoed by Russia’s top military brass.  President Medvedev, too, warned that the failure to cooperate on missile defense is likely to re-start a new arms race.

Some Western analysts remain more optimistic.  They argue that the new arms race will place heavy financial burden on both sides, but Russia will be hurt the most because the country will be forced to curtail its expensive modernization agenda in order to build more weapons.  Besides, NATO has a clear technological advantage over Russia in ABM building capabilities.  Having faced tough realities, the Kremlin may well decide that joining the effort on NATO’s conditions would be the lesser of two evils.  And Russia can always use its advantage in tactical nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to strike a better deal that could mollify domestic hawks.

Then, all the Kremlin has to do is to announce yet another diplomatic victory.  And isn't that all politicians around the globe are so good at?     

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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17 Responses to A Summer Hit: Are Russia And NATO Moving Toward A Collision Over European Missile Defense?

  1. Poppy says:

    I would like to throw in a couple of points on the ‘NATO’ ABMD.
    First, as far as I’m concerned, Europe does not seem to be bothered by the prospective of missiles flying from Iran or NKor or E.T., thus NATO ABMD is mostly and only US DoD’s one.
    We didn’t hear anything from European leaders on their fears of someone’s missiles since the FSU dismemebership.
    More, the techical means to implement it are those of the ‘Ops Theatre’ defense, which brings us to the question who thinks Europe is ‘the theatre’ at all.
    Second, following the above, is a simple thought – if the initiative comes from the US internal military development program, this initiative can’t be by defenition the international diplomatic one, taking into account the European specifics and doesn’t mean to make good for it.
    This way, NATO seems to be nothing more than value-added sales distributor for this.
    From the Russian point of view, as far as I can understand it, all this ABM jazz and fuzz has no sense and it’s selling points are dubious. If something is not clear to your partner who isn’t married to you he
    has both the room and right for doubts.
    Hope we either have it all clear (the first signs coming from Ragozyn are’n quite promising) or – evolving in this or that direction.

    • Octavio says:

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  2. Eugene says:

    Hi Poppy,
    Thanks much for your comment. If I was a leader of a European country and someone offered me a “permanent” protection from all current (non-existing) and future missile threats, I would consider this my responsibility before my constituents to accept. Simply because I can, and others be damned. Especially if this someone promises to do the job and largely pay for it. Why not? After all, people buy insurances afainst things that are unlikely ever happen to them.
    Besides, NATO desperately needs a raison d’etre — with Afghanistan uncertain and no other serious issue at hands. The European ABM would provide NATO with something to do for years — and keep along the way their jobs, perks, etc.
    Now, Russia is a different story because it has to decide, first and foremost, whom it is with. And yes, there are plenty of folks in Russia who are paid to be “against” everything and they like this arrangement.
    My understanding of Rogozin is that he should belong to the Russian hawks — at least in principle, given his pedigree and family connections. However, his tough talk somewhat echoes what the Russian leadeship keeps saying. Whether this is a negotiation bluff or something else, remains to be seen.
    My point however is that Russia can’t stop NATO from doing something NATO has set their minds upon. IMHO, joining the “project” — on “honorable” conditions — is Russia’s second best choice.

  3. Poppy says:

    I disagree on the first.
    First and foremost there’s no such thing as free lunches, while the local government’s duty is, as I see it, taking care of of it’s own people well being and not someone else’s marketing initiatives success.
    I, however, am inclined to agree on the second one. NATO bureaucracy in Brussels desperately needs something to do, preferrably smth useful as they’re not built for anything else.
    To discuss ‘who is Russia with’ fruitfully it takes to understand first, what is the choice, and second to realize that Russia, due to its specifics (history, national idiosyncrasies, size, – full SWOT) is today rather AT IT’S OWN side.
    I’m my only best friend, you know.
    This is exactly why hallucinating on ‘honorable conditions’ is rather counterproductive, I’d say.
    I think I mentioned it earlier, – it’s in fact American project and not European.
    When your ‘what we decide’ is seen NOT as a threat to ‘us’ – there’s likely the way to be found for Russia-USofA joint efforts.
    At the end of a day, it’s them – other countries have fairly little to contribute to the project, except for their national borders.
    If however this RFP is only to give a glossy ‘legitimate’ look to ‘what we’ve decided’, I believe it’s unlikely that Russia turns to trade her name in it for something equally useless.
    Moreover, they are likely to take response steps that might be seen as a threat by someone else, and so on and so force.
    To me personally – if this issue is so hot, it is up to the parties: they’re likely to play it down if they decide to go ‘Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen’ and they want ‘peregruzka’ to go on, otherwise it shall stay as yet another comic act of hi-level diplomatic clowns.
    That’s how I see it and sorry for taking that much of your time.

  4. Mark says:

    If someone offered you “permanent” protection from all current and future missile threats, he’d be lying.
    As Mr. Dyer reports here, the ABM system has a poor record of reliability; successful tests often turn out to have been the result of an absence of realistic decoys, and foreknowledge of the target missile’s launch time, trajectory and destination. A substantial portion of Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile assets would be forward-deployed in submarines during wartime, far out of the reach of interceptors from Poland, for example.
    But forget all that – imagine it works like a charm, every time. As Mr. Dyer also points out – correctly – the overwhelming cost advantage will always be found in developing counters to the ABM system: waves of cheap decoys, maneuverable warheads (such as the Russian TOPOL M), hardening of the warhead so that only a direct hit would stop it, cutting way down on the time required for a launch….
    The real aim, as usual, is to get American military bases established in places like Poland, with a huge honking radar that can see miles and miles into Russian airspace, and whose assessed range would have to be doubled for safety, just in case it turned out to be better than anyone thought. A dozen or so interceptors are the least of anyone’s worries.
    To the western analysts who imagine a new arms race would hurt Russia worst because it would force Russia to curtail the modernization agenda no western analyst will admit exists – do a little research. Check and see who has money in the bank, and who is the biggest debtor nation in history – much of that debt owed to China, who would also be none too pleased with the placement of an ABM system in Eastern Europe. Finally, consider that placement of the ABM system is going to cost at least 10 times as much as the response that will overwhelm it. Is your calculator getting hot? I imagine it is.

  5. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    Thanks for the summary. For the record – I am with Rogozin; Because I am against the war 🙂 – according to J.F.K “..the history taught us a clear lesson that if an aggressive conduct allowed to go on unchecked and unchallenged, it ultimately leads to war..” – btw , the quote was from his “Cuban missile crisis” address to the nation 🙂 I wonder how technically difficult it is to jam the radar (or more precisely, to cause a constant stream of false trigger events)?

  6. Eugene says:

    Thanks again for your comments. I do enjoy our discussion and find this time very well spent.
    I agree that this is mainly, if not exclusively, American project. Yet, for as long as Russia is talking to NATO, there are other 27 countries — with their own, often parochial, interests — that have some saying in decision making. Besides, among them, there are countries with which Russia has very good relations.
    Now, what is the alternative? The arms race that Russia is likely to lose?
    The question whom Russia is with is the most fundamental of all it faces. I don’t know the answer: some days, I feel that Russia belongs to Europe, some days, I feel it’s a thing of its own. However, it’s difficult to imagine Russia NOT being part of Europe at all.

  7. Eugene says:

    Hi Mark,
    I’m not going to argue with experts like you on the technical side of the issue.
    But let’s face this tough truth: European AMD system is going to be built. Period. Case closed.
    The only question is what is Russia going to do about it? To trust Gen. Makarov’s promises of a Russian ABM system by 2020 that will shoot down everything? Fine. Then will someone please explain me why Russia even bothers to talk to NATO on this isuue? Or even create a special commission. Let’s start the race and see who’d win.
    Best Regards,

    • Nere says:

      People, please take a nwsepaper and read about NATO and Russia. First NATO because Russia was at the beginning was created. Today, NATO is not to worry about Russia. Furthermore, since most of what they need help or support of the Russian policy, Russia is to be admitted, which was at the meetings of NATO and there were discussions on Russia’s accession to NATO, they can have rights vote.Meame when NATO Membership is not make this . EU (also known as NATO) has a natural gas contract signed with Russia, they get oil from Russia and Germany has particularly close links with them. This means that the EU and Russia has good relations with the firm intention of remaining friends proches.donc I do not know where your question or what inspires you got, but just be aware that there is NO Russia vs NATO. They are friends.

  8. Eugene says:

    Hi Igor,
    Don’t bet too much money on Rogozin: rumors abound in Moscow that he’s going back to Russia. Will be interesting to know the name of his replacement.

  9. Poppy says:

    Eugene, what do you say?
    I take your point on NATO’s heterogeniuos composition and I am aware of it, I also think ABMD salesman know it too.
    Let me address to some of the questions you
    @But let’s face this tough truth: European AMD system is going to be built. Period. Case closed.@
    Nope. WYTINWYG.
    @The only question is what is Russia going to do about it?@
    It’s a free country – anything to remove the threat as she sees it in the best way she thinks of. There’s a number of options: politically speaking, she can quit the agreemnt. Technically speaking, it could be placing her short-range missiles closer to the ABMD radars and SM sites, thus creating a counter-threat. Could be moving the the BM launch site out of the radars/interceprtors reach or deep BM prop vehicles & warheads modernisation, either. There are more permenent solution to a problem as well though I admit, thinking of another Carribean-style crisis brings me heebie-jeebies.
    I wouldn’t bet my bums on your ‘we don’t see how Russia can respond to it so to hell with her’, it’s proven to be false assumption.
    @Then will someone please explain me why Russia even bothers to talk to NATO on this isuue?@
    It possibly was seen impolite to ignore the NATO’s invitation, not to mention the chance to explain ‘what-ifs’ and ‘whys’? My guess only.
    @Let’s start the race and see who’d win.@
    I personally find this sort of attitude more appropriate for the Olympics, neither I see how USofA can afford it now. The good news, however, is if you invite people to watch you shooting your own feet, they surely come for this edutainment and keep asking for free popcorn, oh yes, sirreee.
    Finally, all this ‘Russia part of Europe or it’s not’ Dostoyevstskiy-style nightmare stuff. Oh, she’s NOT, she’s RUSSIA, too big to swallow, too different to digest. I believe, if you just let yourself to put a new entry in your imaginable table of ‘allowed entities’ – you’ll see it definitely fits in.
    Hope I’m kind of making sense.

  10. Mark says:

    Hi, Eugene;
    “The only question is what is Russia going to do about it?”
    I honestly don’t think Russia is as cranked about it as they make out. They don’t like the idea of an American base on their doorstep, any more than they liked the American base in Georgia and the American penchant for stirring up the Georgians by telling them what great warriors they were and how they felt sorry for Russia if it ever came to a conflict. But it will turn into a money pit for the USA, more so than they think. Poland isn’t Japan, and isn’t going to enter into a status-of-forces agreement that will see them paying through the nose to host an American base. Also, Poland is going to expect trade concessions and perks for going along. It isn’t going to be cheap.
    Since they don’t really have to worry about the interceptors, considering they’d be able to easily overwhelm them, they can concentrate on the radar. They’ll be able to learn a good deal about it that they otherwise might not, considering they’ll have a constant signal to work with, and will also perhaps learn a good deal about American ABM defense policy as they go along. As Igor suggested above, it’s a golden opportunity to test the system’s sensitivity by introducing false-trigger events – in the extreme, it has the potential to cause the system to be detuned to the point it might not pick up a real launch. Poland would be a great deal easier to infiltrate than the USA itself, as people who speak English with an East-European accent will hardly stand out there. Besides, when you know for sure somebody is snooping, it’s easier to introduce false information, and perhaps appear to be considerably weaker or stronger than you really are, as suits your purposes. Development of weapons technology which will defeat the system would, I imagine, be fairly marketable. Moving mobile systems around might cause the USA to have to build more systems. If that happened, they’d have to abandon the fiction that it was targeted against Iran.
    I believe the true purpose of the move is to force Russia to adopt a more aggressive posture, so as to justify keeping her out of international organizations. I don’t think a dozen or twenty or whatever short-range interceptors are going to do that, and they’re going to be hideously expensive. Besides, nothing is a done deal until the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new facility.

  11. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mark,
    I think we all — you, Igor, Poppy and myself — agree that Russia has options, and you guys even count more of them (compared to me) as good ones. Well, then what the point? Nothing has been decided, no door has been closed.
    My point is that Russia should get into negotiations (as it seemingly is doing now) and see what kind of a deal it might get. Rasmussen, while iterating the NATO position of “two independent but synchronized” systems still talks about compomises. And, again, there are countries within the NATO that are more sympathetic to Russia’s concerns than the U.S. and Poland/Balts/etc. Good diplomacy could use this “split” rather effectively.
    I hope at least that you are not proposing an outright arms race. As some commenters to the Russian translation on InoSMI suggest, with S-400, Russia has nothing to worry about.

  12. Mark says:

    It’s quite possible the missile defence initiative is designed to do just that – Russia has fallen far behind in terms of conventional weaponry and unit strengths, and would have to spend a lot of money to catch up, although the real brutal expense would be maintaining an augmented capability.
    Every country has far more to worry about from the politics, two-faced diplomacy and alliance-building of its enemies than its weapons. Actual war on a global scale gets less and less likely all the time as most countries find it too difficult to keep up a large standing military, and conquest does not necessarily offer the expansion opportunities it once did. But inveigling to get a subordinate nation to do the dirty work, or covertly supporting and inflaming internal resistance movements are as popular as they ever were, and just as damaging.
    The advantage and matchless superiority of any weapon system are always temporary, and there’s always a way to fool it or avoid it that’s much cheaper than making a bigger, faster one.

  13. Igor says:

    @Eugene ” ..Russia should get into negotiations (as it seemingly is doing now) and see what kind of a deal it might get. ”
    @MArk “..It’s quite possible the missile defence initiative is designed to do just that”
    If that what you two guys meant – I also agree. I wonder what a broadband noise would do to the radar if beamed (the Woodpecker? 🙂 at the preset publicly announced time for, say, 60 minutes a day (with apologies to the affected civil services of the host countries – you know, we just have started the modernization..)

  14. Mark says:

    I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend negotiation – assuming the U.S. is determined to go ahead with the initiative as currently envisioned, as Eugene suggests – as negotiating from other than a position of strength is being on the wrong side of the process. All that’s usually achieved by the weaker nation in the negotiating process is a free giveaway of its intentions. If the USA is motivated to force Russia into an arms race, they’re unlikely to be deterred by expressions of good faith and interest in being “part of the solution”. Likewise, if the intention is to set up a big radar that can peer deep into Russian airspace, they’re hardly going to allow a contribution of Russian personnel who would immediately report back on its capabilities and range.
    A broadband noise transmitter that would jam a frequency scanning radar over its entire frequency range would have to be either directly adjacent to the radar, or half the size of a mountain because of the power required (all available from unclassified sources). That would be funny – as soon as the radar is built, start building a huge jammer on the closest point of Russian land to the border. It’d likely be cheaper than engineering more missiles that would defeat it. Of course, Russia would get a lot of heat in the press for being poor sports, and trying to help missiles from Iran to hit their targets – as if the facility was actually to guard against missiles from Iran – in the usual press triangulation formula: if you don’t help us, you’re trying to help our enemies. If you like green, it means you hate yellow. You know the drill.
    Again, if the intention is to force a new arms race, the only sensible course of action for Russia would be to ensure the U.S. had to outspend them at least 10 to 1 to support its own efforts, without gaining any real advantage in so doing. That’s the parameters of the problem, and any problem is solvable if you can define it.

  15. Igor says:

    I think we just use the word “negotiation” differently – my understanding of it is basically what they call “power based” – I (as it seems you do) assume that unless both sides are under pressure, it is not negotiation, but begging. It is useless to count on a “good will” of USG.
    That’s why I thought of eg. broadband jamming. In this case it is not so important how effective the jammer is against anti-missile complex, as how much inconvenience for the host (or others) it can create.
    I cannot see how this particular issue relates to a new arms race. Just “business as usual” (cit. 🙂

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