Missile Defenses in Eastern Europe: Who Threatens Whom and How?
September 24, 2008

Staff-prepared summary of the seminar with Stephen Blank, Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College

Recently, the Czech Republic and Poland signed agreements to accept missile defenses from the United States within their borders. The treaty with the Czech Republic was agreed last May, while the treaty with Poland was initialed in August, on the heels of the recent Russian-Georgian war. Although these treaties were designed by the United States to counteract the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program, Russia perceives the missile defense treaties as posing a threat to its security. Stephen Blank described the agreement between Poland and the United States as giving this perception some credence since it includes a provision for placing patriot missiles in Poland (which was included in response to Russia's threat to initiate air strikes against any country that signs the treaty with the US) and the promise that the United States will come to the country's defense in advance of NATO's activation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (which defines an armed attack against any NATO member as an attack against all member states) if it is attacked. Therefore, despite the fact that the goal of the United States' missile defense policy has always been to deter Iran, a discussion of how the treaties are seen as a threat to Russia can no longer be ignored.

These agreements were made after months of difficult negotiations. There were at least four strong arguments working against the United States. First, Poland and the Czech Republic feared that by signing the treaties, they would be antagonizing Vladimir Putin and thereby become a target of Russia's ire. Second, the threat posed to Europe by Iran is questionable, since Iran does not yet possess such weapons and Europe is unlikely to be the foremost target. Third, Poland and the Czech Republic were hesitant to become embroiled in what has clearly been a US-Russia dispute on missile defense and not a "European" problem. Finally, both states balked at the enormous costs involved in cooperating with the US in this initiative.

In the end, the arguments against the treaty were not seen as important as the fact that the treaty would shore up NATO's defense commitment in Poland and the Czech Republic in the face of an increasingly threatening Russia. This threat, Blank explained, emanates from the overarching goal of Russian defense policy: to maintain parity of offensive and defensive arms with the United States. Although this assessment seems to belong in the Cold War era, Putin has revived Russia's nuclear deterrence capability since 2002. Putin has argued that the United States has destabilized the parity by unilaterally withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, invading Iraq outside of the UN system, enlarging NATO and ending its commitment to multi-lateralism. From Russia's perspective, the US has been acting like a rogue state, which has led Putin to pursue a strong anti-American policy in response.

As a carry-over from communist era policy, Blank contended that Russia's foreign policy demands a permanent state of hostility with the US through information warfare, which in effect creates a "cold peace." Within this worldview, Russia's security is guaranteed by recreating a neo-colonial empire that generates insecurity in Central Europe and compels the US to leave Europe. Creating hostility with the US allows Russia to accumulate weapons and intimidate the countries in its near-abroad in order to balance US power. Therefore, the missile defense treaties are seen by the Russians as a direct threat because they could have the capacity to inhibit Russia's first-strike capabilities and thus disturb the parity they seek.

It seems irrelevant to Russia that the United States no longer considers Russia to be a threat to its security and in the recent past has deemphasized the role of nuclear weapons in its foreign policy strategy. Moreover, the US does not view Europe as being within its sphere of influence or in direct confrontation with Russia's sphere, but simply views Europe as part of the "West": the community of democratic, free-market nations that are its closest allies. Over the years, the US has run hot and cold on European integration, moving back and forth between disdain for increased unity when it does not support the US policy, to fostering unity behind a stated US goal. Blank suggested that the future US administration should seek to clearly define its objectives vis-à-vis Russia and enforce a strict policy discipline among all executive agencies in the US government. Finally, Blank urged the US to revive multilateralism to bind European countries together behind its goals: if Europe is seen by the US only as a geographical region, Russia will be able to do whatever it likes.

Martin Sletzinger, Director, East European Studies, 202-691-4000