Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 37

NATO Secretary General George Robertson wound up an intensive two-day visit to Moscow this week which included talks with a bevy of top Russian political and military leaders, including President Vladimir Putin. In purely symbolic terms, the visit highlight was the opening of a NATO information center in the Russian capital. In fact, however, the substantive talks between Robertson and his Russian interlocutors focused overwhelmingly on two issues: missile defense and NATO enlargement. And the former appeared to get by far the greater amount of attention, as Russian leaders used Robertson’s visit to provide–at last–some details about an alternative Russian missile defense plan which Putin first mentioned during a visit to Europe last year.

Whether the talks marked a further improvement in ties between Moscow and the Western alliance is difficult to say. The NATO secretary general’s visit to Moscow last February was a pivotal event of sorts. It came despite the opposition of Russian Defense Ministry hardliners and reflected–after a long rupture which began with the start of NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia–what was believed at the time to be Putin’s desire to mend fences with the West. The lead up to Robertson’s more recent visit was, however, anything but encouraging in this respect. Tensions between Russia and the West have grown strained over the Bush administration’s harder line toward Russia, and particularly over a recent charge by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on the one hand, that Moscow is a dangerous proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies and, on the other, by U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s description of Russia as a threat to the United States. Meanwhile, Moscow has turned prickly in more general terms over the new, more vigorous U.S. push both for missile defense and for a further expansion of NATO.

Washington’s harder line toward Russia made some of Robertson’s proclamations of friendship in Moscow–and particularly his talk of a Russia-NATO “strategic partnership”–sound a little hollow. This was reflected in comments Putin made following a ninety-minute meeting with the NATO leader on Tuesday. “We are aware,” the Russian president said, “of the statements made by certain representatives of the West… who are trying to recreate the image of Russia as the ‘evil empire’ even though it doesn’t scare anyone any more.” Robertson, for his part, appeared to make it clear during his visit that Russian efforts to exploit tensions between the United States and Europe, and to thereby split the alliance, were doomed to failure. In so doing, Robertson was backing up German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who made precisely the same point during a visit of his own to the Russian capital earlier this month. Robertson and EU foreign policy supremo Javier Solana, moreover, had indicated, also earlier this month, that European governments would back the Bush administration’s plans to go forward with U.S. missile defense plans. Those statements ruffled some feathers in European capitals, but suggested that Washington was having some success in lining the allies up behind its missile defense policies (AP, February 5; International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, February 6).

Success achieved by Washington in this area is, of course, likely to be perceived as Moscow’s loss, because the Kremlin has seen the missile defense issue as its major opportunity to set the United States against Europe. Indeed, while Fischer claimed following his own Moscow visit that Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense plans was weakening, Russian officials have moved in recent days to counter that impression. The Russian military appeared to underline the point on February 16 when it conducted a simultaneous land, sea and air test of its strategic missile capabilities. Although the test was presumably planned before the latest upsurge in tensions between Washington and Moscow, the rhetoric coming out of the Russian capital suggested that at least some within Russia’s political and military elite remain opposed to an accommodation with Washington on the twin missile defense and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty issues. Defense Ministry hardliner General Leonid Ivashov made their case, charging that the U.S. offer to include Europe in its missile defense plans in fact constitutes a form of forward defense planning by Washington that could endanger Europe. “If the system is set up, we will regard it as the advance echelon for intercepting Russian strategic missiles,” he said. “Americans will be, as it were, shielding themselves from Russian rockets with Europe in this multilayer defense” (Reuters, February 16; Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, February 17)

To counter the pressure on Europe to accept a U.S. missile defense system which would violate the ABM treaty, Russian officials had spoken often of a Russian alternative which would both be cheaper and promote strategic stability by remaining within the bounds of the ABM accord. But the Russians had provided few details about they had in mind. That apparently changed during Robertson’s recent visit to Moscow, when Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev finally handed over documents setting out the Russian proposal for a limited and mobile theater missile defense system which would provide a partial umbrella against a potential missile attack on Europe.

Full details of the plan were not made public, but it reportedly involves a three-stage approach under which a close assessment would first be made of existing and future missile threats to Europe. Any such threats which might be detected would then be met first by political efforts to defuse the threat. Should those political efforts fail a mobile missile force would as a last resort be deployed near the potential aggressor. According to Russian reports, Moscow envisions a system which would make use of current Russian antimissile systems, including the S-300, S-300V, Antei 2500 and low-grade Tor and Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missiles. Aside from the fact that a system of this sort would not violate the ABM treaty, Russian officials say that its major advantage is that it would be far less costly than the sorts of systems being talked about in Washington. NATO officials will reportedly examine the Russian plan in Brussels in preparation for the arrival of Russian officers, who will present more details about precisely what Moscow has in mind.

Whether the handover of the Russian plan will have any significant impact on the dialogue between Europe and the United States over missile defense remains to be seen. A point Robertson emphasized about the Russian plan–that it shows Moscow to believe along with the United States that a ballistic missile threat to Europe does exist–would seem to undermine Russian claims that Washington has greatly exaggerated the missile capabilities of the so-called rogue states. And that could weaken Russian criticism of U.S. missile defense planning. While some in Moscow, meanwhile, are saying that Russia has already lost this diplomatic battle and that the Kremlin would be well-advised to seek a speedy accommodation with Washington, others have underscored anew a different consideration which Moscow must take into account: the strong opposition to U.S. missile defense plans in China, India and elsewhere. They suggest that Russia’s close ties to these countries provide another obstacle to any easy accommodation with Washington (Reuters, AP, February 20; Washington Post, New York Times, Izvestia, Kommersant, February 21; Russian agencies, February 21).