Center for Arms Control

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

What is to be done? – The Russian Reset and Missile Defense Cooperation

By Kingston Reif and Ulrika Grufman

Shortly after President Obama assumed office in 2009, his Administration announced a reset in relations with Russia, which had soured during the George W. Bush administration. The reset was an attempt to re-engage with Russia and to seek out opportunities for cooperation on a number of issues ranging from trade to arms control. Arguably the greatest success of the reset was the New START Treaty, which entered into force in February 2011.

U.S. officials hoped that another pillar of the reset would be an agreement on NATO-Russian missile defense cooperation. Missile defense has been a sticking point between Moscow and Washington for the last three decades, but it is has also been mentioned as a potential game-changer if cooperation can be achieved. In contrast, failure to resolve the issue could stymie progress on other issues central to U.S. and Russia security, such as further bilateral nuclear arms reductions.

Building on efforts that began under the Bush administration, the Obama administration expended a great deal of diplomatic effort in 2011 on NATO-Russian missile defense cooperation.

However, tensions between the two countries boiled over at the end of November 2011 due to the planned U.S.-NATO missile defense shield in Europe, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, or EPAA.

Unfortunately the two sides have so far missed a big opportunity to transform their relationship, and in the near term upcoming elections in both the U.S. and Russia in 2012 will probably make further progress on missile defense cooperation more difficult to achieve.

The current impasse is particularly frustrating given that the planned European missile defense architecture is not a threat to Russia’s deterrent (at least not yet). Meanwhile, the technical and financial foundations of the system are dubious at best. As four experts aptly put it: “The tragedy, if this confrontation results in a breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, is that almost nothing that anybody claims to be worrying about is real yet.”

Tracking the Impasse

On November 23 , President Medvedev announced that negotiations on missile defense cooperation had reached a dead end. He outlined a number of military steps that Russia would take in order to counter the threat of an American led European missile defense. One immediate measure will be to open a missile detecting radar in Kaliningrad. Medvedev also threatened to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, as well as potentially withdrawing from New START and cutting off the Northern supply route to Afghanistan.

According to Pavel Podvig, much of this tough talk amounts to bluster, as “there is very little that Russia could do beyond what has been already done.” Moreover, despite these warnings, Medvedev did note that the door remains open for further discussions on missile defense cooperation.

In the US, many conservatives saw Medvedev’s statement as vindication for their long held belief that the Russian reset was a mistake.

The Russian opposition however, dismissed the statement as electoral posturing prior to the Parliamentary elections that were held on December 4 and the upcoming Presidential election to be held March 4.

Similarly, Russia expert Dmitri Trenin wrote in the New York Times that “[this] is not the end of the U.S.-Russian reset, it is more of a pre-election recess of Russian-American diplomacy.”

Domestic politics will also be an obstacle to cooperation in the U.S. This can be seen in the ordeal surrounding the approval of Michael McFaul as ambassador to Russia. First, Senator Corker (R-TN) refused to approve the nomination until funding for nuclear weapon modernization was assured. Most recently, Senator Kirk (R-IL) refused to approve the nomination until he received written assurance that the U.S. will not share technology on U.S. missile defense programs with Russia, despite the fact that Republicans did not complain when the Bush administration was willing to share similar such information (including classified information) with Moscow. Fortunately, The Obama administration showed some spine and did not cave in to Kirk’s demands, and the Senator eventually dropped his hold on the McFaul nomination.

It is perhaps ironic that the lack of a written assurance of another kind was the main driver behind Medvedev’s statement. Moscow is worried that the NATO missile defense shield in Europe will affect the Russian strategic deterrent. Although the U.S. claims that the defense shield is aimed at Iran, Medvedev wants a legally binding guarantee. But any such guarantee would have zero chance of passing the U.S. Senate, a reality of which Medvedev is surely aware.

Here it is important to understand the asymmetry in the current Russian-U.S. relationship. According to Trenin, Russia is no longer the number one priority for the U.S. However, Russia continues to view its relationship with the U.S. through a Cold War lens. Trenin attributes this to Russian pride, which explains why Moscow has difficulty believing that the U.S. missile defense system in Europe could be aimed at anyone but Russia.

UPDATE 1/13: In a January 12 meeting with reporters, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher also attributed Russian opposition to cooperation in part to a Cold War mentality, arguing that some Russia officials are hesitant to stop viewing the U.S. as "an enemy."

Experts also point to Russia’s shrinking population, NATO’s eastward expansion, the rise of China, and the inferiority of Russian conventional forces as underlying reasons for Moscow’s feelings of insecurity and overemphasis on nuclear weapons in its national security policy, all of which make it particularly sensitive to U.S. missile defense advances.

A Solution to the Impasse?

So how might the standoff between the U.S. and Russia be resolved?

One option would be for the U.S. to abandon the aspects of the missile defense system that Russia finds most objectionable. While this outcome may be forced by financial and technical considerations in any event, it’s a political nonstarter for the time being.

The other option for the U.S. and Russia is to continue, despite the current political impasse, to try to develop closer cooperation on missile defense, even if not much is likely to be accomplished in 2012 given Presidential elections in both the U.S. and Russia. Perhaps the ice could start to break after the Russian elections in March, but Russia may want to wait until it knows who the next U.S. President will be before making a commitment to missile defense cooperation.

Acknowledging and building on areas of agreement that already exist would be a good place to start. As the Brookings Institution’s Steve Pifer has written, “the two sides reportedly have found considerable convergence in their views about what practical NATO-Russian missile defense cooperation would entail: transparency on missile defense programs, joint NATO-Russian missile defense exercises and the establishment of two jointly manned missile defense centers.”

Other experts agree, noting that “Hawks on both sides seem to have a teary-eyed nostalgia for the Cold War but the two sides are, in fact, not nearly as far apart as the harsh rhetoric suggests.”

Though posturing, grandstanding and demagoguery are common features of political discourse, particularly during an election season, cooperation on missile defense would be a big win for U.S. and Russian security.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103 kreif@armscontrolcenter.org

Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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