I’m still sifting through some of the nuclear headlines from the holiday break and wanted to address the hyperventilating in the blogosphere and the media about Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin’s end of the year comments on missile defense. In a visit to Vladivostok on December 29, Putin stated:
If we don’t develop a missile defense system, a danger arises for us that with an umbrella protecting our partners from offensive weapons, they will feel completely safe….The balance will be disrupted, and then they will do whatever they want, and aggressiveness will immediately arise both in real politics and economics.
The view from the U.S. press seems to be that this means missile defense is the main issue holding up completion of the New START agreement.
Maybe we’re in too much of a “don’t freak out mood” over here at the Center, but I don’t put much stock in Putin’s remarks. The reality is that despite Russia’s initial positive reaction to the Obama administration’s new approach to missile defense in Europe, it remains deeply concerned about U.S. missile defense plans. Putin didn’t say anything new…
While the Russians have certainly been more difficult negotiating partners than we would have hoped, I still don’t believe that missile defense is going to be a deal breaker during this round of arms reduction talks.
The U.S. has made it clear that limits on U.S. missiles defenses cannot be part of a START follow-on agreement. In fact, Presidents Obama and Medvedev have stated that New START will deal only with strategic offensive arms. As far as I know, this remains the official Russian position, Putin’s remarks notwithstanding. As Linton Brooks put it at a December 8 press briefing the Center co-hosted with the Arms Control Association:
I think it is very unlikely that this treaty will constrain in any way ballistic missile defenses, first because I think that would complicate ratification enormously in this country, but secondly, because I don’t think the Russians are interested in doing that at this stage.
Could Putin’s comments have been a negotiating tactic to try and extract some additional concessions from the U.S. as the New START negotiations come to a close? I think there could be some truth to this, but I don’t think we should view them in the first instance as some kind of narrow instrumental means to an end.
Rather, they reflect the standard Russian view on missile defense, which is that the current status quo of unconstrained U.S. development of long-range missile defenses is a threat to Russia’s deterrent and not tenable in perpetuity. Pavel Podvig summed up the implications of this view nicely back in August:
There is, however, one common element to all positions – they all assume that deployment of U.S. missile defense in Europe is a fundamental issue in U.S.-Russian relations and cannot be reduced to technical arguments. Whether this is justified or not, this means that any changes of the system configuration that would try to address Russia’s concern in a narrowly defined technical way – e.g. changes in the deployment area or a move toward mobile or ship-based interceptors – are unlikely to change Russia’s position on missile defense in a substantial way. Rather, Russia might see it as an attempt to circumvent its objections and to altogether exclude it from the discussion of missile defense and larger security issues.
I think this explains a lot about why Russia remains wary of U.S. missile defense plans despite the cancellation of the Czech and Polish sites. If anything, Putin’s comments are probably aimed at what we’ve been calling the follow-on to the follow-on, or the next round of much deeper nuclear arms reduction negotiations.
Such reductions will almost certainly have to be accompanied by a far more formal and robust modus vivendi between the U.S. and Russia on missile defense than what we’re likely to see in the initial New START agreement.