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352. Missile Defenses in Eastern Europe: Who Threatens Whom?

With predictable regularity, Russian officials regularly charge that American missile defenses (10 radars and interceptors) in Poland and the Czech Republic threaten Russian security. They claim that since there is no threat of Iranian missiles (conventional or nuclear), there is no justification for building these systems. Therefore, they can only represent a threat to Russia's vital interests. Since everyone admits that ten such units alone do not constitute that threat, Moscow charges that that these systems are merely the thin edge of the larger program to saturate Central and Eastern Europe with missile defenses to prevent Russia from launching its nuclear weapons in a first strike against a conventional or nuclear attack from the West. That first strike is in accordance with Russia's military doctrine that calls for such strikes to compensate for Russia's conventional inferiority vis-à-vis NATO and the United States. Missile defenses would then deprive Russia of the capability to launch a retaliatory strike or else degrade that capability, leaving Russia vulnerable to all manner of attacks. Because Warsaw and Prague defied Russia's objections and threats by accepting to host these missile defenses they have received numerous equally predictable and regular Russian threats to target them with nuclear and conventional missiles.

But are Russia's charges that these systems threaten it justified: indeed, who threatens whom in Eastern Europe? The threats directed against Poland, Belarus and even Ukraine suggest that other issues and dynamics are at work here rather than missile defenses. First, it simply is not true that Russia believes there is no Iranian nuclear or missile threat. Since 2005, Moscow has advocated a revision of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, urging that it be globalized to include all missile powers, lest Russia withdraw from the treaty. As quoted in The Guardian on October 13, 2007, President Vladimir Putin told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007: "We need other international participants to assume the same obligations which have been assumed by the Russian Federation and the US. If we are unable to attain such a goal . . . it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation where other countries do develop such weapons systems, and among those are countries in our near vicinity."

Putin was obviously talking about Iranian and Chinese missiles. But Russia dares not announce that its "allies" present its most immediate security threat. Russian military men also acknowledge the Iranian threat. Both Deputy Prime Minister and former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and former Chief of Staff, General Yuri N. Baluyevsky have publicly acknowledged Iran's threats. Commenting in ITAR-TASS on February 26, 2007 on Iran's launch of a sub-orbital weather rocket, Lt. General Leonid Sazhin stated that, "Iran's launch of a weather rocket shows that Tehran has not given up efforts to achieve two goals—create its own carrier rocket to take spacecraft to orbit and real medium-range combat missiles capable of hitting targets 3,000 tp 5,000 miles away." Although he argued that this capability would not fully materialize for three to five years, it would also take at least that long to test and deploy the American missile defenses that are at issue. Equally significantly, Major-General Vitaly Dubrovin, a Russian space defense expert, was quoted in the same article saying, flatly "now Tehran has a medium-range ballistic missile, capable of carrying a warhead." Naturally both men decried the fact that Iran appears intent on validating American threat assessments. Since then, Iran has developed the Ashura Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile with a 2000 Km range. Indeed, Putin's 2007 proposal for joint use of the Gabala air and missile defense installation in Azerbaijan implicitly acknowledged the validity of the U.S. threat perception concerning Iran.

To understand Moscow's alarm and anxiety about these missile defenses, we must look at the scenarios advanced by Russian spokesmen as to why these defenses allegedly threaten Russia.

  • As Dmitri Trenin has suggested, Moscow claims that missile defenses represent an American perception of threats from Russian nuclear missiles. Therefore these defenses aim to neutralize them in potential conflict. Either Russian missiles would be attacked by a conventional air and space first strike, possibly involving these networks in Europe, or else these missile defenses would frustrate a retaliatory second strike leaving Russia defenseless.
  • While these missile defenses in and of themselves are no threat, they represent the first stage of a planned or potential U.S. buildup of a missile network in Europe that could then neutralize Russia's first and/or second strike capabilities as cited above and shift the burden of war to Europe.
  • If missile defenses were stationed at these bases, it would create a pretext for stationing offensive missiles there. This would force Moscow to assume the worst case scenario and could cause Russia to attempt to shoot them down leading to a conflict with America.
  • These defenses and whatever may follow them rupture the fabric of strategic stability where neither side has the freedom of action or margin of superiority that might encourage it to think it could employ coercive diplomacy or military force with impunity. That strategic stability equation is of critical importance to Russia because otherwise Washington might be tempted to think it could strike at Russia with relative impunity.
  • Finally, there is a fifth, and always unstated but critical aspect here. These defenses entrench the United States in Europe's military defense and foreclose any prospect of Moscow's being able to intimidate or reestablish its hegemony over Eastern and Central Europe, and even possibly the CIS. If missile defenses exist in Europe, Russian missile threats are greatly diminished if not negated. Because empire and the creation of a fearsome domestic enemy are the justifications for and inextricable corollary of internal autocracy, the end of empire allegedly entails Russia's irrevocable decline as a great power and, (the crucial point) generates tremendous pressure for domestic reform.

Beyond that, it is also clear that Russia, as part of its strategy, insists on being able to intimidate Europe through missiles such as the new Iskander, especially its cruise missile variant and its Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW). Indeed, Russia's threats of missile strikes and targeting against virtually every state from the Baltic states to Georgia arguably demonstrate the need for both missile defenses and frankly for NATO's continuing robustness, if not enlargement. Thus, missile defenses will deprive Russia of the capability to intimidate Central and Eastern Europe, which features so prominently in its strategy.

In fact, Russia has recently announced its intention to equip the Baltic Fleet with nuclear weapons, clearly to offset the deployment of these missile defenses. In reply, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt announced that, "According to the information to which we have access, there are already tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad area. They are located both at and in the vicinity of units belonging to the Russia fleet." (Timesonline, August 17, 2008.) Here, Bildt disclosed that Russia has long been violating the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives agreed to by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin which removed TNW from aboard their countries' fleets in 1991 and 1992. This public revelation of Russian cheating would, under the best of circumstances, have raised red flags in Washington and Europe regarding future cooperation. Today it merely confirms the gathering and overwhelming impression that arms control deals with Russia are inherently dangerous and futile because Moscow will not abide by them unless there is a rigorous inspection and verification regime.

Thus, Russia's motives for opposing missile defenses in Europe are driven by factors other than what it says in public. Thus the fundamental basis of Russia's rivalry with America is political and stems from the nature of the Russian political system which cannot survive in its present structure without a presupposition of conflict and enemies. From Russia's standpoint, the only way it can have security vis-à-vis the U.S. given that presupposition of conflict is if America is shackled to a continuing mutual hostage relationship based on mutual deterrence that characterized the Cold War, so that it cannot act unilaterally. To the degree that both sides are shackled to this mutual hostage relationship, Russia gains a measure of restraint of and even of control over US policy. As Patrick Morgan observed, this kind of classic deterrence "cuts through the complexities" of needing to have a full understanding of or dialogue with the other side. Instead it enables a state, in this case Russia, to "simplify by dictating, the opponent's preferences." (Timesonline, August 17, 2008.) Thanks to such a mutual hostage relationship, Russian leaders see all other states that wish to attack them or even to exploit internal crises like Chechnya as being deterred. Therefore nuclear weapons remain critical component in the ensuring of strategic stability and, as less openly stated, in giving Russia room to act freely in world affairs.

In return for accepting that it too is similarly deterred, Russia postulates as one of the fundamental corollaries of its policy and strategy that Moscow must retain a capability to intimidate and destroy Europe with its nuclear and other missiles. In other words, believing a priori that Europe is the site of a presumptive enemy action against it, Russia demands as a condition of its security that the rest of Europe be insecure. Indeed, reports of Russia's forthcoming defense doctrine openly state that the United States and NATO represent the main threats to Russian security and that Washington will continue to seek military supremacy and disregard international law for a generation. Likewise, Moscow has consistently stated that the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe and Asia will disrupt existing balances of strategic forces and undermine global and regional stability. Furthermore, Russia's leaders openly contend that one cannot discuss European security without taking into account the missile defense issue or the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Certainly Russian officials see the weaponization of space, the integration of space and terrestrial capabilities, missile defenses, and the U.S. global strike strategy as a part of a systematic, comprehensive strategy to threaten Rusisa. So in response Moscow must threaten Europe. Indeed, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently charged that missile defenses in Europe, systems that allegedly used to be regulated by bilateral agreements to maintain parity are now being introduced close to Russia's borders, thereby rupturing that parity in Europe and elsewhere. During his recent trip to Poland, Lavrov went even further, saying that:

"For many decades, the basis for strategic stability and security in the world was parity between Rusisa and the United States in the sphere of strategic offensive and defensive arms. However, in recent years, the US Administration chose a course towards upsetting that parity and gaining a unilateral advantage in the strategic domain. Essentially it's not just about global missile defense. We also note that the US has been reluctant to stay within the treaties on strategic offensive arms, and that it is pursuing the Prompt Global Strike concept, and developing projects to deploy strike weapons in outer space. This, understandably, will not reinforce the security of Europe or of Poland itself." (Zvezda Television, in Russian, September 11, 2008, FBIS SOV, September 11, 2008.)

Lavrov then went on to say that if Poland, under the circumstances, chose a "special allied relationship" with Washington then it would have to bear the responsibilities and risks involved and that Moscow, in principle, opposed having its relations with third parties being a function of Russian-American disputes.

Thus Russia's arms control posture also represents its continuing demand for substantive if not quantitative parity as well as for deterrence with a perceived adversarial United States in order to prevent Washington from breaking free of the Russian embrace and following policies that Russia deems antithetical to its interests. Moreover, that parity is calculated not just globally but in regional balances as well so that Russia also demands a regional (qualitative or substantive) parity with America at various regional levels, most prominently Europe. Russia's demand for restoring parity entails not an unreachable numerical parity, but rather a strategic stability or equilibrium where both sides' forces remain mutually hostage to each other in a deterrent relationship. Furthermore Russia wants to relate to key countries and regions irrespective of its relations with America so that it can have a free hand in regard to them and thus resents the presence of American power in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Indeed, not only does it wish to shackle US power to the mutual hostage relationship of mutual deterrence and thus mutually agreed destruction (MAD), it also clearly believes, as Lavrov's and dozens of other threats to Poland and other states show, that its security remains contingent upon its ability to intimidate Europe with nuclear weapons and threats.



About the Author

Stephen Blank

Senior Fellow for Russia, American Foreign Policy Council
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