U.S.-Russia Missile Defense Talks Deadlock

Tom Z. Collina

A year-long U.S.-Russian effort to find ways to cooperate on European missile defense ground to a halt in November and December, just months before the NATO summit in Chicago this May and in the midst of presidential election seasons in both countries.

Moscow is now threatening to boycott the summit and take other retaliatory measures, such as deploying short-range missiles in Kaliningrad to destroy NATO interceptors and withdrawing from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

In reply, U.S. and NATO officials said that their plans to deploy a missile interceptor system in Europe under the Phased Adaptive Approach will proceed regardless of Moscow’s concerns, raising the prospect of rough sailing for U.S.-Russian relations in the months ahead.

At NATO’s 2010 summit in Lisbon, Russia and NATO agreed in principle to cooperate on a European missile interceptor system. At that time, there were expectations that the two sides would agree on the details of the joint efforts by the Chicago summit.

Russia’s hardened position became clear when President Dmitry Medvedev gave a Nov. 23 national address in which he said that the United States and NATO “have not showed enough willingness” to address Moscow’s concerns. Russia has repeatedly asked for legally binding assurances that NATO missile interceptors would not be used against Moscow’s strategic missiles. “We will not agree to take part in a program that, in a short while, in some six to eight years’ time, could weaken our nuclear deterrent capability,” he said.

The European missile interceptor program is being deployed in phases. The first phase, with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors on Aegis ships and a tracking radar in Turkey, is expected to be declared operational at the Chicago summit. Subsequent phases include the stationing of land-based SM-3s of increasing capability and number in Romania (2015) and Poland (2018) and the 2020 deployment of the SM-3 IIB, which is advertised to have some capability against long-range ballistic missiles. (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

“We find ourselves facing a fait accompli,” Medvedev said in the speech.

Medvedev said he was still open to discussions but, given the circumstances, had been “forced” to take proactive steps, such as putting an early-warning radar in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave just north of Poland, on “combat alert” and equipping new strategic missiles with “advanced missile defense penetration systems and new highly effective warheads.”

In addition, Medvedev said that if these measures “prove insufficient,” Russia would deploy “modern offensive weapon systems in the west and south of the country, ensuring our ability to take out any part of the U.S. missile defense system in Europe.” He said one step in this process would be to deploy Iskander missiles, which are nuclear capable, in Kaliningrad. In 2007, Russia warned that if the Bush administration carried out its plans to deploy long-range missile interceptors in Poland, then Iskanders might be deployed in Kaliningrad. These plans were suspended after the Obama administration announced in late 2009 its policy to deploy the shorter-range SM-3 instead.

Medvedev said Russians “reserve the right” to “discontinue further disarmament and arms control measures” and that “conditions for our withdrawal from the New START treaty could also arise.”

To make his point, Medvedev traveled to Kaliningrad on Nov. 29 and activated the new radar, known as the Voronezh-DM station, according to press reports. “If this signal is not heard, we will deploy other methods of protection, including the taking of tough countermeasures and the deployment of strike forces,” he said.

Sergey Karakaev, the commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, announced Dec. 19 that Moscow had decided to build a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile with “increased possibilities in overcoming the prospective missile defense system of the United States,” according to Pravda, and the Russian Defense Ministry announced Dec. 20 it had carried out a test of a short-range interceptor missile and posted a video of the event on its Web site.

In response to Medvedev’s speech, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told reporters Dec. 2 that “[w]e’re deploying all four phases [of the European interceptor system]…whether Russia likes it or not.”

At a Dec. 8 NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said NATO would not “give any other country outside the alliance a veto” over whether to build a missile interceptor system. The system is “not directed at Russia, it’s not about Russia, it’s frankly about Iran,” she said, adding that it was “certainly not a cause for military countermeasures” by Russia.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote Dec. 6 in The New York Times that NATO has tried to allay Russian concerns by offering transparency on missile defense programs through exchanges at the NATO-Russia Council and “a standing invitation to Russian experts to observe and analyze missile defense tests.” Rasmussen wrote that NATO also proposed holding joint NATO-Russia theater missile defense exercises next year and suggested establishing two joint missile defense centers, one for sharing data and the other for supporting planning. Russia rejected these proposals as insufficient.

Medvedev’s more aggressive stance did not go unnoticed in the U.S. Senate. After being assured that New START would contribute to better U.S.-Russian relations, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in December, “[W]e are now in a situation where the president of Russia is threatening to deploy ballistic missiles to destroy U.S. missile defense systems in Europe.”

There has been speculation that Medvedev’s speech was made primarily for domestic political reasons, coming just before December parliamentary elections in which Medvedev’s United Russia party suffered significant losses. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will face a presidential election in March and is not expected to make major policy announcements before then that could be perceived as concessions to the West. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters Dec. 12 that the Chicago summit “would be easier to stage” if NATO and Russia had “agreed on missile defense by that point.” A decision on whether to attend the summit will be made after the presidential election, he said.

According to a diplomatic source close to NATO, Medvedev’s speech is being taken seriously given the specificity of his declarations and the fact that he serves as commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces.

In the United States, congressional Republicans have strongly opposed any limitations on U.S. missile interceptor deployment plans. That issue figured prominently in the debate over ratification of New START. (See ACT, January/February 2011.)

Meanwhile, Moscow and Washington also sparred over the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. At a Nov. 22 press briefing, U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington no longer would “accept Russian inspections of our bases under the CFE [Treaty], and we will also not provide Russia with the annual notifications and military data called for in the treaty.” (See ACT, December 2011.)

Ryabkov told reporters Dec. 16 in Washington that the U.S. decision “has absolutely no meaning for us.” He spoke after a session of the bilateral working group he co-chairs with U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher.

“We receive the necessary data to analyze the military-political situation through other channels, including global exchange of military information and in the framework of the Vienna document on enhanced measures of trust,” he said, referring to the Vienna Document on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which requires participating states to share information on their military forces and equipment. “It is the sovereign decision of NATO members [to stop implementing the CFE Treaty,] and we accept it as it is,” he said. Russia will continue to observe its 2007 suspension of the treaty, Ryabkov said.