On October 12, Michael McFaul, the nominee for US Ambassador to Russia, stated at his confirmation hearing that the negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on missile defence cooperation have stalled. Less than a week later, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher, although using a more optimistic tone, conveyed a similar message.
McFaul mentioned in his opening statement at the hearing that tensions between the US and Russia remain on issues such as Georgia, Syria and human rights. When asked about the prospect of an agreement on missile defence cooperation before the NATO Summit in Chicago May 2012, McFaul stated:
“We’ll continue to talk to them about — it’s — after all, a lot of this is about physics. This is not about perceptions. And, you know, we’ll see what we have as we prepare for the summit next May. I’m not optimistic right now, but we’re going to continue to work this issue.”
He went on to say this work could take years instead of months.
This view was echoed by Secretary Tauscher during a conference on missile defence hosted by the Atlantic Council on October 18. Her tone appeared more optimistic, yet she began her address by jokingly saying:
“I did just come back from Moscow. It was partly cloudy and getting colder every day. That’s what you were looking for, right? The weather report? (Laughter.)”
When asked if this was a metaphor she replied affirmatively. She repeatedly referred to missile defence cooperation with Russia as a potential game changer in US-Russian relations that could pave the way for progress on many other issues. She would not speculate in when an agreement could be reached, but affirmed that the window of opportunity will not remain open forever:
“It’s not an infinite opportunity. And I think everybody knows what’s at risk if we don’t do it. We don’t want to return to the 1980s. We want to remove mistrust so that we can remove miscalculation, and we want to move from a world of mutually assured destruction to a world of mutually assured stability, and this could be the way to do it.”
However, McFaul and Tauscher seemed to disagree on the sources of Russia’s concerns about missile defence. Whereas McFaul claimed that it has a lot to do with physics and not perceptions, Tauscher seemed more sensitive to the underlying political issues. When asked about Russia’s objections to U.S. missile defences, she said that some of it is technology and culture, but that we have to remember that missile defence has been a political irritant between the two countries for years.
In general, talking about Russia without talking about perceptions and politics is problematic; it is very rarely just “about physics”.
The Atlantic Council’s conference also highlighted the largely indifferent view of the European countries toward the importance of missile defence. Of course Europe does not speak with a single voice, but the consensus of the Conference’s European panel, which included scholars from Turkey, France, the Czech Republic and the UK, seemed to be that missile defence is not a big issue in Europe in political and economic terms. Although some countries are happy to host US ships and bases, the incentive for larger European financial and military contributions to the system appear to be low. Dr. Michael Rance, Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, explained the UK view:
“In the U.K. missile defence is – to coin an almost appropriate phrase – below the radar both politically and in the public perception. It rarely appears in the media.”
To sum up, the negotiations on a common missile defence with Russia appears to be going badly at the moment, though they’re far from hopeless. As Tauscher noted, the ongoing talks are vitally important, as failure to reach an agreement could stymie U.S.-Russia cooperation on other important security issues, such as further reductions in the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.