The Obama Administration has made much of its efforts to “push the reset” button with respect to the U.S.-Russian relationship. There is a new START agreement providing for modest reductions in the two countries’ strategic arsenals. Washington has gotten Russian agreement to a new round of sanctions against Iran. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is coming to America, to Silicon Valley, in an effort to generate interest in foreign investments in Russia’s failing technology sector.
An issue that holds the potential to increasingly divide the two countries is that of missile defenses, particularly the proposed deployment of a limited missile defense system in Europe. The Obama Administration has confirmed the view of its predecessor that missile defenses are a legitimate, even central part of the deterrence and reassurance equation. Properly managed in a so-called phased, adaptive strategy, such defenses can provide deterrence of missile threats and reassurance to allies that might otherwise only be attainable by explicit nuclear guarantees.
The Russian government and leading strategic experts were highly critical of the U.S. proposal to deploy a limited ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe. A number of officials have gone so far as to warn that Moscow will take offensive countermeasures, some of which would increase the threat to Europe, in the event that the system went forward. On the day President Obama was elected, President Medvedev warned that unless the plan to deploy the missiles in Europe was halted, Russia would deploy additional short-range ballistic and cruise missiles against Eastern Europe.
While it was assumed that Russian opposition to missile defenses in Europe was a function of their deployment in the absence of a formal agreement as well as the nature of the defenses themselves (the original third site was an extension of the National Missile Defense system) this may not be the case. Russia has raised concerns about the deployment of a land-based version of the Aegis/Standard Missile system in Europe. Recently, Moscow even objected to the deployment of a U.S. Patriot battery to Poland.
Russia has a two-fold problem with U.S. pursuing effective theater defenses. The first is the impact defenses may have on their efforts to maintain a theater deterrent, both conventional and nuclear. Second, is their belief that theater defenses, particularly if internetted and connected to space-based and other mobile sensors, will be a dandy platform for creation of a highly effective strategic defense capability. Such a defense, employed in conjunction with an advanced, precision conventional offense, could provide the basis for a disarming first strike scenario.
The administration will undoubtedly take the same steps as did its predecessor with respect to the old third site concept. It will talk, lecture and explain all in an effort to demonstrate something that the Russians already know, which is that such a system cannot possibly endanger their strategic deterrent. Russia’s objections are based on a fundamental desire that Europe not be protected against ballistic missiles. However, given the threat from Iran, Europe must be defended. Ultimately, on this issue the administration will have to choose between our European allies and our new Russian “friend.”
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