Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 198

The row between Moscow and Washington on missile defense (MD) has moved into the realm of Cold War rhetoric and typical Cold War “peace initiatives.” These are grand-sounding public offerings of extravagant compromises that are primarily publicity stunts. Last June, during the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, Russian President Vladimir Putin boldly took the initiative, apparently surprising President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials, to offer joint use of a powerful early warning radar in Gabala, Azerbaijan, as an alternative to U.S. plans to base MD interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic to defend against a possible Iranian missile attack (see EDM, June 11, 13).

During the Cold War, “peace initiatives” from the opposing side were seldom rejected out of hand, so as not to antagonize public opinion. In Heiligendamm Bush called Putin’s proposal “interesting” and announced an agreement to begin a strategic dialogue on MD, first on the level of experts and later including the U.S. and Russian defense and foreign ministers—the so called 2 + 2 formula (see EDM, October 17). Military experts from the start pointed out that the old Soviet radar in Gabala could not be used to direct MD interceptors and cannot substitute for the planned radar in the Czech Republic. Legally the Gabala radar belongs to Azerbaijan and is used by the Russian military under a lease that will expire in 2011. In fact, the Russian Defense Ministry may terminate use of the radar before that date, when a substitute early warning radar near Armavir in the Krasnodar region of the North Caucasus is completed—perhaps as soon as 2008.

Last month a U.S. military delegation visited Gabala and, after inspecting the facilities, once again insisted that an early warning radar may be used only for detecting missile launches—not to guide interceptors (www.lenta.ru, September 19). To supplement the Gabala offer, the Kremlin suggested using the new radar near Armavir. In any case Washington did not seem very interested and was instead busy drafting an alternative peace initiative of its own to announce to the Russians at the “2 + 2” meeting in Moscow on October 11.

As it happens with such peace initiatives, the content of the confidential offer was soon revealed. It turned out that Washington had decided to address the most serious of Moscow’s arguments against MD in Poland and the Czech Republic—the lack of clear evidence of the existence of an Iranian long-range ballistic missile threat. Russian officials have argued that, since Iran does not have nuclear weapons or multi-stage long-range ballistic missiles and it may take decades to develop them, the deployment of MD in Poland and the Czech Republic is in fact aimed at Russia. Last week U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Daniel Fried disclosed that the United States could down-size MD plans in Europe—if Iran halted its nuclear and missile programs (Financial Times, October 18). The offer was apparently designed to make Moscow put more pressure on the Iranians to comply with UN resolutions that require them to stop uranium enrichment.

During a visit to Prague on Tuesday, October 23, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the MD shield in Poland and the Czech Republic would be fully activated only when a threat emerged—when Iran, perhaps, tests a long-range missile. While the MD facilities will still be built in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russian inspectors will be invited to find out on the spot that there is no threat to Russia. Gates implied that the new compromise offer has not yet been fully worked out (Reuters, Kommersant Online, October 23).

Moscow’s reaction to the latest U.S. peace initiative was in line with the U.S. reaction in Heiligendamm—stunned caution. First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov told reporters, “The U.S. has not yet provided Russia with any written proposals.” After the offer is tabled, Russia will study it before making any judgments (Itar-Tass, October 22).

Putin has taken a public stand that U.S. MD construction in Europe must be frozen, so long as there is no direct evidence of a Iranian nuclear or missile threat. Gates has offered to build MD facilities, while promising not to activate them fully before there is evidence of an imminent Iranian threat. The proposal does not seem to offer Russia much substance, since construction of MD in Europe is planned to continue until 2012 or 2013, while “activation” after construction may be done any time at short notice.

In the 1980s, the United States deployed nuclear Pershing-2 and cruise missiles in Western Europe to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles. The deployment caused massive anti-nuclear protests in NATO states, protests that were actively supported by Moscow. To diminish the public objections Washington put forward a “zero option”; that is, to eradicate all USSR and U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles. When the anti-war protests failed to stop the deployment or seriously undermine NATO cohesion, Moscow agreed to the “zero option,” and in 1987 the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was signed.

Sometimes public “peace proposals” actually advance peace, although today in Moscow the INF has been declared a “mistake,” and Putin has threatened to abrogate it (see EDM, February 21, October 17). Now Washington is again offering a “zero option”—no Iranian threat, no MD in Europe. But the decision to take it must be made by Iranians, not Russians. In the meantime, the West will be asking Moscow to put more pressure on Iran to curtail its nuclear program and to agree on more rigid UN sanctions. Moscow’s options do not seem pleasant—Russia may support Iran, oppose it, or try to sit in the middle; in any case, it will get into serious trouble.