May 03, 2008

Russia’s view of US missiles

‘A world in which there is one master, one sovereign’

Le Monde diplomatique.


To Moscow, the US bases about to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic look like less like defence against incoming missiles from rogue states, and more like encirclement of Russia and a return to the costly arms race of the cold war.

By Olivier Zajec

The extension of the United States’ National Missile Defence system to Europe has played a significant role in increasing tensions between Russia and the West in the past year. Under recent agreements with Washington, the Czech Republic is to host a missile-defence radar system near its border with Germany at Jince. Warsaw has also agreed to site interceptor missiles in northern Poland (1). The US has justified these plans by citing the need to protect itself and Europe from possible ballistic missile attack by Iran.

Most Poles and Czechs are sceptical about whether this is necessary, and Nato, which has been working on missile-defence plans of its own, has been sidestepped by the US bilateral agreements. There has been no official response from the European Union. Only Russia has openly voiced its objections. The hostile sabre-rattling of Russia’s political and military leaders has been picked up by western media, but without putting the reasons for Russia’s reaction into perspective: it’s too easy for the media to over-dramatise the situation with talk of a new cold war. But if you look beyond missile defence in Europe, it is possible to identify three key factors that explain Russia’s stance.
Balance of power between US and Russia

The first relates to the future balance of power between Russia and the US, put in doubt by the rapid development of the American National Missile Defence system. The decision to press ahead with this followed the Bush administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002. This, dating from 1972, limited the US development of anti-missile defences with the aim of preserving the nuclear balance of power. It was an obvious target for the neocons who wanted the US, as the world’s only superpower, to have complete freedom of action over its defences. As a result, the National Missile Defence programme was officially restarted on 17 December 2002 (2).

For the Russian Federation’s leaders, who inherited the USSR’s strategic mindset if not its ideology, the ABM treaty had long been the cornerstone of US-Russian equilibrium, since whichever of the two countries attacked the other first would also itself be annihilated (the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”). The treaty preserved the strategic balance through being both fair and potentially deadly. It helped keep Russia satisfied, especially during its turmoil in the 1990s. The only serious challenge to it was the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), the “Star Wars” programme that President Ronald Reagan launched in 1983. But after the cold war the SDI programme, which had grown out of control without reaching completion, was scaled down. In reduced form it was taken forward under the new name of Global Protection against Limited Strikes by George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton.

The US unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 shocked Russia’s leaders and meant the period of sympathy between Vladimir Putin and George Bush Jnr after 9/11 lasted barely two months. The Russians felt that the Americans had taken advantage of the tragedy in New York and the war on terror to change the rules of the game. After the US withdrawal from the treaty came the “colour revolutions” in former Soviet republics, the US push in central Asia and the invasion of Iraq. All of these aggravated Russia’s sense of being outnumbered and outflanked as room for manoeuvre diminished.

The fragility of the balance of power has been keenly felt by Moscow, not least because the US missile defence programme has highlighted the risk of a gulf between the countries’ military capabilities. Russian defence analysts point to the billions of dollars the US spends each year on these projects ($9.6bn in 2008), widening a gap which may become unbridgeable. National Missile Defence is a top-flight research programme which funds many US research institutes and allows Washington to get ahead in a domain the US considers vital – the arming of space.

Both Moscow and Beijing have denounced this policy, seeing it, probably rightly, as the means by which the US hopes to maintain the strategic and technological advantage it enjoyed as sole world superpower at the end of the cold war. But the Russians could be accused of exaggerating the current stakes. Russia’s defence and national security are based on a non-conventional arsenal which may have shrunk in size since the cold war, but is now of significantly higher quality, and includes tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and anti-missile defences. The SS-27 Topol-M surface-to-surface missile is typical of the updating of defence capability: it has a range of 10,000km and can carry multiple MIRV (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle) warheads.

When its programme is complete – around 2020 according to recent estimates – Russia will have a fleet of 10 submarines capable of launching missiles, and around 100 long-range ballistic missiles. The whole arsenal will consist of 500-600 nuclear warheads. Add its air capacity, and Russia will have nearly 2,000 nuclear warheads available. This, backed with an enhanced range of conventional weaponry, such as Kh-555 cruise missiles, which have a 5,000km range, could not be neutralised by US anti-missile defences. Russia is currently the only country with a more or less viable anti-missile system capable of defending at least part of its territory. It is improving its defences with the S-400 Triumph programme and an upgrade of the radar alert system deployed around Moscow. Russia’s offensive and defensive capability can protect it from a pre-emptive US strike. But although the Kremlin may be overstating its concerns over shifts in the balance of power in eastern Europe, it remains worried about a widening gap between Russia and the US in the long term.
Future threats

The second factor influencing Moscow’s position stems from its perception of the origin of future global threats. Russia takes a different view of the international situation from the US and some European countries: from the Kremlin’s point of view the situation in Iran, while needing careful monitoring, may develop differently from western predictions. President Putin took pains to elaborate his position at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy on 10 March 2007: “Missile weapons with a range of about 5,000 to 8,000km that really pose a threat to Europe do not exist in any of the ‘problem countries’. And in the near future, this will not happen and is not even foreseeable. And any hypothetical launch of, for example, a North Korean rocket to American territory through western Europe obviously contradicts the laws of ballistics. As we say in Russia, it would be like using the right hand to reach the left ear.” Putin’s speech effectively dismissed the US justification for anti-missile systems, the threat from rogue states armed with WMDs capable of attacking Europe (3).
Fears of containment

As Russia sees it, if the danger from rogue states is neither immediate nor credible, the US anti-missile programme in Europe can only come down to the desire to contain a re-emergent Russia within its borders. Since Nato’s eastward expansion began in the 1990s, the strategic imbalance in Europe has seemed ever more pronounced to Russian eyes, as a growing number of states (Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states) sign bilateral military agreements with the US.

But the geopolitics of eastern Europe gives only a partial impression of the thinking that underpins the US anti-missile defence system. Russia’s concerns seem better founded if you look at the US system as a whole. There are two main axes running from the North Pole, along which a series of active or planned interceptor sites and pursuit and warning radars are located.

The first axis exists to defend the western US against a North Korean threat. There are missiles on the Vandenberg base in California, interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and the Cobra Dane radar on the Aleutian Islands, as well as a radar system in the Sea of Japan, as near the potential threat as possible. The second axis, which defends the east of the US against the perceived threat from Iran, is studded with missile sites near Boston and others in Greenland. The missing piece is a radar site nearer Iran, capable of intercepting a missile aimed at the US in its early boost phase. Hence the need for the radar site at Jince in the Czech Republic.

But is this base really the answer? The US would be better served by radar close to the source of the threat, say in Georgia or Azerbaijan, which is what Russia proposed at the G8 summit in June 2007, near the start of the European anti-missile controversy. It even offered to put the base at Gadala, which Russia rents from the Azeris, at the disposal of the US. This would also have provided defence against any threat from Pakistan, an unstable nuclear power whose ballistic capabilities are much greater than Iran’s. Bush called the Russian offer “very sincere” and “innovative” but turned it down, insisting on the importance of Poland and the Czech Republic as an integral part of the defence system.

Russian leaders must be wondering: if a radar in Azerbaijan is not the answer, why not one in eastern Turkey, a historic bulwark of Nato? To the Kremlin, the motive is clear: insistence on the Iranian threat is just a pretext. The choice of Poland and the Czech Republic is a matter of extending US influence, a diplomatic manoeuvre to encircle Russia. This presumed US hypocrisy over strategy in Europe, where Moscow feels it has already given many concessions, masks other potential points of agreement between the Kremlin and the West: Russia too has worries about China in the medium term, India remains an ally, and it views Pakistan as an unpredictable state and international jihadism as a threat. In these respects Russia is closer to the Western outlook than is usually admitted.
Why Moscow is mistrustful

But two critical points provoke Russia’s mistrust. There is the rhetoric surrounding the “axis of evil”: Moscow has denounced its counter-productive effects, which end up backing the targeted regimes into a corner. There is Russia’s feeling of being encircled, especially on its western borders. For Moscow, the far-reaching and irreversible links which the US NMD system is establishing in Europe, without regard for the interests of the continent, threaten European autonomy.

The anti-missile defence programme in Europe is a chess game in which each side is thinking several moves ahead. On the Kremlin’s side, the long term extends beyond 2025, when the disparity between Moscow and Washington’s capability and technology could threaten Russian strategic autonomy. Despite its current comparatively good financial position, Russia does not want to repeat the mistake it made during the Star Wars era, when it had to struggle to catch up with the US, ultimately costing the USSR its empire. Vladimir Putin and his successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, would prefer to intervene preventatively at this stage and dissuade possible European partners from getting too intimately involved with the US in the first place. This explains recent Russian threats to turn its missiles towards Poland, Ukraine (4) and the Baltic states, if they go ahead with the US system. At a meeting with the Ukrainian prime minister on 13 January 2008, Putin warned: “We will be obliged to redirect our missiles at installations which we firmly believe pose a threat to our national security. I am obliged to say this openly and honestly today.”

It also explains a major decision taken by Russia in December 2007 in suspending its adherence to the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty between Nato and the Warsaw Pact. (Russia will no longer permit inspections or exchange information on its deployments, which caused consternation across Europe.) It explains the constant stream of comments by Russian generals, from reasoned (if not always reasonable) statements from the current top brass to aggressive posturing by cold war dinosaurs. While it has moderated some of the dinosaurs’ roaring, the Kremlin hasn’t denounced their substance. It has steered a middle course: appearing to be holding its anti-US old guard in check, while keeping up the pressure on Washington during the dying days of a weakened US administration bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The effects of the Russian counter-offensive are beginning to be felt: already the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, as well as Donald Tusk’s new Polish government, which has been keen to improve relations with the EU, Germany and Russia since coming to power in 2007, are worrying about what the US will do after the presidential elections. A Democratic administration wouldn’t abandon the principle of a National Missile Defence, but will it press ahead with a plan which has marginalised Nato and been the cause of European concern and Russian anger?

The outcome of the anti-missile question in Europe will be determined by three factors. First, the strong US desire to see an anti-missile capability in Europe, which is unlikely to disappear even with a change of administration in Washington. Second, the necessity of taking the Russian viewpoint into account. The Europeans are especially sensitive to this (5), since Russia is a near neighbour and an energy supplier, but for the moment they haven’t dared to cross the US. Third, a clarification of the decision-making process which is part of the US system: whose finger will be on the button (6)? Who will decide how the interceptors are to be programmed? What happens, in the event of deployment, to the debris that falls back to earth?

Given the apathy of the EU, perhaps Nato is the forum in which a resolution will be worked out. It provided the framework in which Russia was already working on ballistic anti-missile defence plans before the current controversy. It would also provide a context in which the Europeans could participate directly in strategic and technical development. But in order to overcome the current controversies, all parties would have to look beyond the current bilateral agreements.

Moscow continues to blow hot and (more often) cold. This is how Putin summed up his viewpoint: “What is a unipolar world?... at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign... this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within” (7). This is an area in which the former USSR can speak from experience. Despite the clear subtext and evident bad faith on Russia’s part, Europe – if it wants to preserve its strategic autonomy – cannot afford to ignore this warning.

Translated by George Miller

Olivier Zajec is a consultant for the Compagnie européenne d’intelligence stratégique (CEIS), Paris

(1) The first interceptor could be operational by 2011.

(2) For more on the origins and ideology of the National Missile Defence programme, see “Missiles and the American psyche”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2007.

(3) Russia does not, however, underestimate Iran’s ability to develop an intercontinental missile by 2030.

(4) Ukraine submitted an application to join Nato’s Membership Action Plan in January 2008.

(5) Especially Germany, which is keen to refocus the debate on Nato. Germany’s concerns are shared by Belgium, Holland and even Canada.

(6) It is currently planned that the system will be run from a control centre in Colorado under the aegis of United States Strategic Command.

(7) Speech given by Vladimir Putin at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, 10 February 2007.

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