Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 51

Recent statements by American and some European officials suggesting that Moscow may be reconciling itself to U.S. missile defense plans have been met over the past two weeks with increasingly forceful rejections from a spectrum of Russian political and military officials. In specific terms, the Russians are dismissing the notion that a plan for a European theater missile defense system–which Russia handed to NATO Secretary General George Robertson in Moscow last month–represents Moscow’s indirect acknowledgment that Europe is faced with a missile threat from so-called rogue states, as Washington has argued. Russian officials have also charged this week that a recent Bush administration move to reconceptualize its own missile defense plans in fact fails to alter them in any substantive way.

Finally, and probably at least in part as a reaction to the Bush administration move on missile defense, the Russians appeared earlier this week to go on the offensive themselves on the same issue. A top Russian military official suggested on Monday that Moscow would offer participation in its own missile defense plan not only to European countries individually or as a group, but also to countries outside of Europe, including, apparently, some in Asia. Whether this new Russian initiative is serious remains to be seen. But it at least suggests that the Kremlin is now pursuing a dual policy of seeking to rally international opposition to U.S. missile defense plans while maneuvering simultaneously both to portray itself as a defender of international stability in this area and to sell its own missile defense plan as a more reasonable (and cost-effective) alternative to the American proposal.

The immediate background to these latest exchanges on the missile defense issue lie most prominently in three recent events: a February visit to Moscow by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, after which he suggested to the world that Russia had reconciled itself to U.S. missile defense plans; a visit to Moscow by George Robertson later that month in which the NATO leader portrayed a Russian proposal for a European theater missile defense system as Moscow’s acknowledgment of U.S. arguments that Europe faces a growing missile threat; and a meeting in Washington on March 9 in which U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly assured Robertson that the United States would help its European allies in the development of missile defenses against both short- and long-range missiles.

It was during the Rumsfeld-Robertson talks that the U.S. defense secretary suggested that the distinction between “strategic” and “theater” missile defense systems was an artificial one for many countries around the world. Rumsfeld’s reconceptualizing U.S. missile defense plans was aimed at easing the concerns held by many European governments that the earlier proposed U.S. “national” missile defense system might serve ultimately to decouple European security concerns from those of the United States. In a move first hinted at during a key security conference in Munich earlier this year, Rumsfeld reemphasized on March 9 the more inclusive nature of current U.S. thinking on missile defense. Indeed, he told reporters following his talks with Robertson that he had ceased using the words “national” and “theater” to describe various missile defense proposals (see the Monitor, February 16, February 22; Reuters, March 9-10).

After a brief period of seeming indecision in the wake of such developments, Russian officials have moved over the past two weeks to reject some of the assertions being made in the West about missile defense and Moscow’s alleged attitude toward U.S. plans in this area. Moreover, whereas the most definitive and strongly worded condemnations of U.S. missile defense plans have in the past often come from Russian military leaders, Moscow’s current reaction has hailed also from the Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin itself. That suggests a uniformity of views not always evident in Moscow’s earlier efforts to address the missile defense issue. For the time being at least, the new line appears also to represent a fresh mixture of firmness and accommodation in dealing with the issue. There has been little counterproductive saber-rattling over the past two weeks out of Moscow; officials there appear instead to be combining firm condemnations of U.S. missile defense plans with both the alternative of Moscow’s own theater defense proposals and a renewed emphasis on Russia’s continuing willingness to immediately resume strategic arms control talks with the United States. This combination of firmness and reasonableness is presumably aimed primarily (but not solely) at Europe, and is intended to play upon enduring doubts there about the wisdom of acquiescing to Washington’s missile defense goals.

Moscow’s revised public posture on the missile defense issue was evident during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to South Korea late last month, when he reiterated Russian support for maintaining the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (see the Monitor, March 1). It showed up also in the Russian press immediately thereafter, when it was emphasized that–contrary to suggestions in the West–Moscow had in no way endorsed the notion that Europe faces the serious threat of a missile attack. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov, a top Russian strategic arms negotiator, reinforced the message on March 7, when he denied that Russia’s position on missile defense was softening. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov followed on March 9, when he appeared to dismiss as a rhetorical sleight-of-hand Washington’s decision to stop defining its proposed missile defense system as a strictly national one. “The essence of this project has not changed,” Ivanov said after a meeting with European Union officials in Stockholm: “If this project is implemented it will be a direct violation of the 1972 ABM treaty” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta–Dipkurier, No. 4, March; AFP, March 8, 10).