Little Room for Compromise over Missile Defense

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 236

Will there be a U.S. - Russian compromise on missile defense?
Last minute attempts by the outgoing U.S. administration to reach some understanding with Moscow on outstanding arms-control issues have failed. This week RIA-Novosti quoted “a high-ranking source” in the Defense Ministry as saying, "The dialogue with the United States on arms control has been fruitless." The ministry accused the United States of attempting to count only the so-called "operationally deployed strategic warheads." Moscow, on the other hand, wants to count all existing strategic delivery systems regardless of whether they are equipped with nuclear warheads. The Russian military believes that the United States is seeking a capability to secretly expand its nuclear potential "to undermine the control regime and strategic predictability" (RIA-Novosti, December 9).

Last week NATO foreign ministers agreed to resume contacts gradually with Moscow; relations were chilled after Russian troops invaded Georgia in August, and this thaw was welcomed by Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin. At the same time, the NATO ministers said that the planned U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic would make a "substantial contribution" to protecting the allies from the threat of long-range ballistic missiles (Associated Press, December 3). Russia’s official Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko insisted that such a missile defense (MD) system "would have an anti-Russian potential" (, December 8).

President-elect Barack Obama, while deploring Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August as "contrary to international norms," announced that it was "important for us to reset U.S.-Russian relations." Obama wants to cooperate with Russia on a "whole host of areas, particularly around nonproliferation of weapons and terrorism" (“Meet the Press,” NBC News, December 7). Moscow has welcomed the message that a new dialogue is possible, while talks with the outgoing Bush administration have been stalled, in hope of more concessions from Obama (Kommersant, December 9).

During repeated Power Point briefings in the past, Pentagon officials have explained to their Russian counterparts that the ground-based interceptors (GBI) planned for Poland and the radar in the Czech Republic are not aimed at Russia and do not pose any threat. Indeed, the GBIs that have been already deployed in Alaska do not seem to worry Moscow, though they have a capability to hit Russian ICBMs over the Arctic. Moscow feels threatened by the planned MD deployments in Europe because the military assumes that it is not an MD system at all but a potent secret attack weapon under the guise of a missile defense against Iran. Washington and its European allies do not seem fully to appreciate this Russian anxiety.

The GBI missile is based on the so-called direct non-nuclear intercept: A solid metal warhead is directed to strike and pulverize an attacking ballistic target on collision course. During the Cold War the Russian military also attempted to develop such weapons but abandoned the program before 1980, deciding the goal was unachievable. Instead, the Russian military developed and deployed a less precise system around Moscow based on a so-called nuclear indirect MD: Interceptor missiles are armed with megaton warheads that may disable incoming enemy nukes even if exploding several miles off target. The same nuclear interceptors have a double use: They can be aimed at ground targets several thousand miles away.

The Russian military believes that the “direct intercept” concept that they abandoned during the Cold War is still technically impossible. The military tells its political masters that the American direct intercept concept or “bullet hitting bullet” is a hoax and cannot work in the real world. It is assumed that the missiles in Poland will, in fact, be nuclear-tipped and intended for a surprise attack to annihilate the Russian political and military leadership in their workplaces in Moscow, effectively incapacitating Russia before a mass of other U.S. nuclear missiles from more distant locations comes crashing in to destroy a helpless Russia. The GBIs deployed in Alaska and California could not possibly reach Moscow and therefore do not arouse any significant Russian objections.

Rogozin recently told a Moscow radio station:

The missiles planned for Poland are double-purpose, very fast and modern weapons. They can be guided by radar to intercept ballistic and other flying targets, as well as targets on the ground. They would be able to reach Moscow in 4 minutes after take-off and are so precise they can hit the window of our president’s office in the Kremlin. I believe that their deployment is intended for a disarming and disorganizing attack on the capital of Russia (Ekho Moskvy, November 28).
At present, it seems that Moscow will settle only for a full scrapping of U.S. MD plans in Europe. Will the Obama administration be ready to concede what Moscow would consider a major military and political victory? Not only would the nightmare of a sudden U.S. attack be curtailed, it would imply that in the future the U.S. and NATO would seek Moscow’s approval before any significant deployments of a “military infrastructure” in former Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics. This would establish a sphere of Russian “privileged interests” and promote the kind of stability, predictability, and security in Europe that the Kremlin is seeking.