Déjà Vu All Over Again

Daryl G. Kimball

The Cold War may be over, but the nuclear-armed missiles and suspicions remain. Now, Washington’s plan to deploy ground-based missile interceptors in the former Eastern Bloc—coupled with the expansion of NATO and the Bush administration’s resistance to further offensive nuclear reductions—are increasing Moscow’s anxieties about U.S. strategic missile capabilities.

U.S. officials say their anti-missile systems are designed to deal with a potential Iranian missile force not Russia’s. They correctly note that even if 10 U.S.-controlled missile interceptors are eventually stationed in Poland, Russia’s missiles could overwhelm and evade the defenses with far cheaper countermeasures.

Rather than simply dismiss Russia’s complaints as an overreaction, U.S. and European leaders should engage Russia in a broad strategic dialogue and negotiate further, verifiable reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. If the situation is mishandled, it could revive dormant tensions and instability.

Recent signs do not bode well. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military leaders said a European-based anti-missile system could trigger a new arms race and lead Moscow to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. That pact led to the elimination of more than 2,600 U.S. and Soviet short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles, and with the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), helped thaw the Cold War confrontation less than a generation ago.

The commander of Russia’s strategic forces also bluntly warned Poland and the Czech Republic that if they host U.S. anti-missile systems on their soil, Russian forces would be “capable of having these installations as their targets.” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shot back, calling the comment “extremely unfortunate.” The Czech foreign minister accused Russia of “blackmail.”

It was not supposed to be this way. Five years ago when President George W. Bush unilaterally withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, he asserted that U.S. withdrawal would not “in any way undermine our new relationship or Russian security.” Putin resisted the move but could do little to stop it. To save face, Putin successfully pressed Bush to codify planned reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, which led to the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

But SORT, unlike previous agreements, provides far too little predictability and transparency. SORT obliges Russia and the United States to reduce their respective deployed strategic warheads to 1,700-2,200 by 2012, but the warhead limit expires the day it enters into force, allows each side to retain thousands of nondeployed reserve warheads and delivery systems, and provides no new monitoring or verification mechanisms.

The approach gives U.S. defense planners the flexibility to reconstitute a larger nuclear force and utilize leftover strategic nuclear delivery systems for conventional strike missions. Having discarded the ABM Treaty, the Bush administration rushed to deploy rudimentary ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska beginning in 2004. It wants to deploy a similar system in Europe around 2011. Russia, which is no longer able to maintain parity, sees these combined developments as a threat to its shrinking nuclear strike force. Making matters worse for both sides, START is due to expire at the end of 2009, and with it the verification provisions that U.S. strategic forces commander General James Cartwright has said promote transparency and stability.

It was in this context that on June 27, 2006, Putin called for the resumption of the U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear dialogue. Unfortunately, U.S. officials rejected Russia’s September proposal for expert-level talks. Without the transparency and limits of START and INF Treaty, the United States and Russia risk returning to the distrust, worst-case assumptions, and arms competition of the past.

Now, Bush is asking Congress for $225 million for fiscal year 2008 to begin building the anti-missile system in Europe. Lawmakers should reject the project, which can’t work effectively, is intended to counter a potential Iranian missile threat that is still years away, and would undermine other risk reduction priorities.

Congress should also call on the White House to pursue talks with the Kremlin to preserve the INF Treaty and START verification provisions, and to accelerate the drawdown of the still massive and dangerous U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles. Thousands of these warheads remain on high alert. Withdrawal of the 400-some U.S. short-range nuclear weapons in Europe could spur cuts in Russia’s far larger arsenal of these smaller and more portable nuclear weapons, which remain high-value targets for terrorists and a threat to everyone.

Russia ’s cynical rhetoric should not be seen as an invitation to confrontation so much as a reminder that there has not been enough meaningful cooperation. Given the long history of U.S.-Russian nuclear rivalry and Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, U.S. and Russian leaders must extend the life of their existing arms control agreements and seek new reductions to reestablish trust and stability.