The recent declaration by Russia's air force commander that Russian warplanes would, if necessary, destroy any American ballistic missile defense system stationed in the Caucasus illustrates how disruptive the missile defense issue has become for Russia's relations with the United States and its allies.
The warning by General Vladimir Mikhailov followed a March 1 statement by United States Air Force Lieutenant-General Henry Obering, head of the US Missile Defense Agency, that an anti-missile radar station in the South Caucasus could prove "useful, but not essential." The governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all declared that no plans exist to house such a facility.
Despite the denials, Russian hostility to a regional or European missile defense system shows no sign of abating. Pentagon sources have indicated they plan to ask probing questions about Russia's position on the issue when the next regular consultative session between defense policy makers from both countries occurs in Washington on March 9.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries are currently engaged in three separate ballistic missile defense (BMD) initiatives. The first such initiative, the so-called Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defense system, would protect NATO military forces and installations, wherever they operate, from short- and medium-range ballistic missile attacks. NATO governments are also considering a missile defense system to protect the national territories and population centers of NATO's European members from long-range missile attacks; a 2006 feasibility study stated the shield could ward off missiles launched from Iran, Syria or North Korea.
Finally, the United States is pursuing bilateral initiatives with select NATO members -- currently only Poland and the Czech Republic -- to deploy 10 U.S. missile defense interceptors, as well as support assets such as radar tracking stations, to counter such long-range missile attacks from US territory. These systems could also help defend U.S. allies. Russian political and military leaders have objected most strongly to this latter category of U.S. missile defenses.
In discussions with EurasiaNet and elsewhere, American officials attribute Russian opposition to several factors.
Some believe that certain Russians genuinely, if erroneously, feel threatened by the deployment of foreign missile defense systems near their territory. In recent weeks, however, U.S. officials have become increasingly convinced that Russians recognize that the deployment of this small number of interceptor missiles near Russia could not appreciably threaten Russia's large Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) arsenal. Senior Russian and American officials discussed the BMD issue 10 times during the last year alone, according to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and other American officials have also claimed that their Russian interlocutors have been much less critical of U.S. BMD efforts in private than their public comments would suggest.
These considerations have led U.S. officials to emphasize other reasons for Russians' objections to the deployment of an anti-missile station.
A second explanation held by some U.S. and other NATO policy makers is that Moscow has focused on the BMD issue as the most tangible symbol of the extent to which the alliance's enlargement could affect Russia's own former sphere of influence. Strident Russian objections to proposals that NATO grant membership to Georgia or to other former Soviet republics are seen as Moscow's assertion of special security privileges in the former Soviet space.
Some analysts fear that, by threatening a major East-West crisis, the Kremlin may hope to exploit the different security perspectives among NATO members to disrupt any further eastward extension by the alliance.
Third, some U.S. and NATO analysts see Russia's confrontational posture as an attempt to bargain for greater influence in any European anti-missile defense system. The Russian Air Force's General Mikhailov argues that the principle of equal participation should govern the creation of any such multilateral system, with Russia closely involved in every step of its formation and operation, effectively enjoying the same status as the United States and its allies.
Although NATO governments stress their continued interest in cooperating with Russia on missile defense issues, including within the NATO-Russian Council, they refuse to grant Moscow a veto right over the kind of BMD architecture NATO countries will establish to defend their security.
Finally, American and other NATO officials suspect that Russian leaders see the BMD issue as an excuse to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and the other core elements of the Eurasian arms control architecture.
For several years, Russian national security leaders have chaffed at the limitations the INF Treaty places on their country's mid-range missile arsenal. The accord prohibits Russia and the United States from developing, manufacturing, or deploying ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers.
Russian government representatives have also criticized NATO countries for refusing to ratify the upgraded CFE Treaty, which relaxes some constraints on Russian military deployments, until Russia completes its military withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova's disputed Transdnester region. Russian leaders insist they need to deploy their troops in certain pro-Moscow separatist regions of the former Soviet republics to enforce cease-fire agreements and prevent terrorist and criminals from seizing stockpiles of Soviet-manufactured weapons. They also claim they must retain large troop concentrations in the northern Caucasus to counter Islamist-inspired terrorist threats against southern Russia.
Using the BMD dispute as an excuse to exit these treaties would allow Russia to strengthen considerably its military capabilities in Eurasia. For example, the Russian military could concentrate its conventional forces in the northern Caucasus unconstrained by CFE limits, while deploying medium-range ballistic missiles suitable for rapid precision strikes against terrorists and other targets throughout Eurasia.
US and other NATO policymakers have made clear they continue to support these treaties. In addition, Russian analysts themselves have pointed out that their country, despite its revived economy, is in no position to engage in a major security confrontation with Western governments already alarmed by President Vladimir Putin administration's increasingly authoritarian politics and its sensitive energy practices towards other Eurasian states.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.