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Russia, U.S. Trade Missile Defense Offers

Tom Z. Collina

The United States and Russia are exchanging proposals on missile defense cooperation, possibly leading to another round of reductions in nuclear stockpiles, senior officials from both countries said, following a Russian official’s May 15 statement that Moscow would respond “in a constructive spirit” to a U.S. proposal made in April.

The U.S. proposal, which has not been made public, was contained in a letter from President Barack Obama that national security adviser Tom Donilon delivered to Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 15. The Russian official, Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov, said in April that the letter “covers military-political problems, among them missile defense and nuclear arsenals.”

Nikolai Patrushev, chief of Russia’s Security Council, delivered Putin’s reply during a meeting with Obama and Donilon on May 22, according to a statement by the Russian embassy in Washington. Patrushev also met separately with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel May 21 to discuss missile defense and other issues, according to the Pentagon. Hagel traveled to Moscow for a May 23 conference sponsored by the Russia Ministry of Defense, where missile defense was a prominent issue of discussion.

This latest round of missile defense diplomacy follows Hagel’s March announcement that the United States would cancel the planned Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB missile interceptor program in Europe, which Russia claimed could undermine its strategic nuclear deterrent. (See ACT, April 2013.) Russia has said that it will not consider Obama’s proposals for additional nuclear arms reductions unless its concerns about U.S. missile interceptor plans are addressed.

The Moscow Times and other Russian media reported May 16 that Obama’s letter proposes “to develop a legally binding agreement on transparency, which would include the exchange of information and confirmation that our programs do not present a threat to each other’s defense forces.” This would presumably include a U.S. commitment to Moscow that its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in western Russia would not be threatened by U.S. interceptors to be based in Poland and Romania and on nearby ships. Russia’s main objection to U.S. missile defense plans for Europe has been that they would threaten Moscow’s ICBMs.

In a May 15 e-mail, a Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the Russian media reports.

U.S. officials have made statements that are broadly similar but provide less detail. Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global affairs, testified May 9 before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee that the administration was seeking to revive earlier proposals “that could ultimately lead to discussions with respect to both transparency and cooperation with the Russians on missile defense.” The Obama administration has been proposing greater transparency on missile defense activities since 2011, and U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation has been a bipartisan goal since the Reagan administration. (See ACT, April 2011.)

In response to U.S. proposals for greater cooperation on missile defense, Russia has been seeking a legally binding agreement, such as a treaty, to limit the number, location, and speed of U.S. interceptors based in Europe. The Obama administration has rejected this proposal because, among other reasons, the Senate would be unlikely to approve a treaty limiting U.S. missile defenses. Obama’s proposal on transparency would be an executive agreement and not subject to Senate approval, according to the Moscow Times report.

Obama’s cancellation of the planned SM-3 II-B interceptor deployment should reduce Russia’s need for a treaty-based commitment, as Moscow was primarily concerned about the capabilities of that interceptor, according to former administration officials. A Russian diplomatic source was quoted by Kommersant May 15 as saying that Russia “could well accept the U.S. proposal” because “more transparency in the missile defense field is useful both in itself and as an instrument to improve mutual confidence.”

Obama also reportedly suggested that the two countries could conclude a framework agreement on further reductions to their nuclear arsenals. In his State of the Union address in February, Obama reiterated his support for a follow-on agreement to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Obama has been calling for another round of reductions for strategic and tactical nuclear weapons deployed and in storage.

Kommersant reported May 24 that Putin, in his letter to Obama, was still seeking a legal guarantee that U.S. missile interceptors would not threaten Russian ICBMs.

Talks are set to continue, as Putin and Obama are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries in Northern Ireland on June 17-18 and in St. Petersburg, Russia, around the September 5-6 Group of 20 summit.

In response to the shelving of the SM-3 IIB program, 19 Republican House members wrote to Hagel to ask him to request $250 million for 20 interceptors for an East Coast site to defend against possible Iranian long-range missiles. At the May 9 hearing, Creedon testified that she does not see a gap in missile defense coverage of the East Coast. “The East Coast is well protected” by the 30 interceptors now based in Alaska and California, she said.

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