Thursday, March 27, 2008

You First

Preparing for next weekend's meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian officials are making a familiar demand: scrap missile defense.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow's position today, in a conversation with reporters. While admitting that Russia is studying recent proposals on missile defense--offered by American officials earlier this month--Lavrov said the best solution would be for the U.S. to cancel its program.

We are convinced that the best way to assuage Russia's concerns ... will be to abandon such plans and turn to a truly collective project," Lavrov told reporters.

Earlier this month, the U.S. secretaries of state and defense visited Moscow with new proposals that would allow Russia to closely monitor the prospective missile defense sites.

Lavrov previously has said the proposals reflect the U.S. recognition of Russia's concerns but that Moscow needs to study them in details before replying.

Mr. Bush will likely hear similar complaints--and arguments--in his meeting with Mr. Putin. The out-going Russian president has long opposed U.S. missile defense programs, claiming that they are "destabilizing" and jeopardize Moscow's strategic nuclear deterrent.

In a rare concession last summer, Putin suggested that the U.S. use a radar station in Azerbaijan to track incoming missiles. Washington has promised to consider the offer, but has stated it cannot replace planned facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.

We're not sure what counter-counter offers--if any--will be offered by Mr. Bush during meetings with his Russian counterparts. But, as a negotiating ploy, he could throw down the gauntlet to his hosts, and link any decrease in U.S. defenses to similar cuts in Russia's missile defense ring around Moscow. The answer he receives could be quite revealing.

The Russians don't exactly advertise it, but they've long had a limited ballistic missile defense system. Work on the defensive shield, which is deployed around Moscow, began in the early 1960s. Permissible under the ABM treaty (which allowed one defensive site per country) the Russian system became operational in 1971, and has remained in service ever since. It was upgraded in the mid-1990s and provides a limited defense against strategic attack, or a strike by a rogue nation. The United States mothballed its only ABM site (in North Dakota) during the mid-1970s.

Operating the system for almost 40 years has been a rather expensive proposition, but successive generations of Russian leaders considered it a worthwhile investment. They spent even more money on upgrading a system after the Cold War--a time both Moscow and Washington were reducing their strategic arsenals.

As we've observed before, Russia prefers to have it both ways when it comes to missile defense. Mr. Putin and his successor are quite happy to have a limited ABM system around their capital, in the event it might be needed. But, when it comes to missile defenses in eastern Europe--systems that might (someday) threaten Moscow's nuclear missiles--well, that's a different story.

With the global missile threat growing--and BMD systems now reaching maturity--it's doubtful that Mr. Bush will offer new concessions in his talks with the Russians. And that strikes us as the right position. Left unchecked, rogue nations that now possess medium-range missiles could have ICBMs within a decade, giving them the capability to strike the United States (and before that) our allies in Europe.

In that threat environment, a limited BMD deployment in eastern Europe makes eminent sense. Additionally, the U.S. has expressed its willingness to let the Russians join the venture, an offer Moscow has, so far, rejected. Full cooperation on a defensive measure doesn't exactly fit in Moscow's plans, particularly when Russia needs a nuclear "deterrent" for leverage with its neighbors--and it's already a member of the missile defense club.


eatyourbeans said...

Do you think that maybe the Russians are really after something completely unrelated to the missiles, which are only a bargaining chip? A guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will never be part of NATO? Recognition of Russian claims to the oil under the North Pole? Who knows what?

Unknown said...

Beans--At this point, I think the Russians are simply biding their time. Bush is a lame duck, and they're betting that his successor will be a Democrat, and much more agreeable on such issues as missile defense.

The Russians would love nothing better than a U.S. retreat on the issues you listed. And, under a President Obama, they might just get their wish, on at least two of the three. Obama is no fan of missile defense, and he might slow membership for Ukraine and Georgia, in exchange for vague Russian promises, or simply a pledge to "keep talking."

eatyourbeans said...


I have nothing but admiration for the skill and astuteness with which Russia has repaired her fortunes. This leads me to think they can easily see the advantages of a most cordial understanding with the USA, one based on mutual dangers and mutual self-interest. On the most existential level, we need their oil and gas. They need our muscle as they slowly recuperate from the 20th century.

I am sure Putin gets it. I am also sure that Obama, Hillary and McCain can't. What a lost opportunity!