Monday, July 14, 2008

Rattling the Saber

Russia is again expressing its displeasure over the planned U.S. missile shield for eastern Europe, threatening to "neutralize" any threat posed to its nuclear deterrent.

The latest comments came Monday from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Kislyak, who renewed his country's objections during a briefing in Moscow. His comments were reprinted by the Interfax news service:

"If we see the development of systems that could reduce our deterrent potential, our military will have to take steps to neutralise the threat," Kislyak was quoted as saying at a briefing in Moscow.

He did not specify the steps that would be taken, saying "this will be decided by military specialists."

"We would prefer not to have to do this," he added.

Obviously, this isn't the first time a senior Russian official has made this sort of threat. If anything, it's a reminder that Vladimir Putin remains firmly in charge of Moscow's security policies, though he left the presidency almost three months ago.

And, it's an indication that Moscow may be trying to exploit an apparent split in the missile defense camp. Earlier this month, Poland rejected an offer to host interceptor missiles on its soil, in exchange for a U.S. promise to upgrade the nation's air defenses. Without those interceptors, the system loses its ability to shoot down hostile missiles, making it nothing more than another tracking station.

By reaffirming its opposition, Russia may believe that it can convince Poland to back out of the deal once and for all, greatly complicating missile defense plans for eastern Europe. If we're reading the tea leaves correctly, Moscow's latest "stick" may be followed by a carrot, namely an offer to sell advanced air defense systems to Poland (a NATO member), giving Warsaw a chance to upgrade its capabilities without the "complications" of the missile shield.

Convincing the Poles to back out of the missile shield is still a long shot, but the Russians are willing to give it another shot. Besides, they understand that renewed saber-rattling on missile defense resonates far beyond eastern Europe. Mr. Kislyak's remarks were also aimed at the U.S. presidential campaign, specifically at the candidate who's done a flip-flop on the defensive shield, Barack Obama.

The presumptive Democratic nominee believes that Iran is a threat, but he's opposed missile defense until a recent policy "adjustment." In other words, he has no problem criticizing Iranian missile tests--the threat which has prompted development of the defensive shield. But, when it comes to actually deploying the anti-missile system, Mr. Obama and his Democratic colleagues will usually take a pass.

That must be music to the Kremlin's ears, one reason the Russians will likely ratchet up their criticism of missile defenses between now and November. But such comments from Moscow--and their coverage in the western press--obscure the over-arching concerns that should frame this debate.

First, no one doubts Russia's ability to overwhelm the planned defensive shield, which is aimed at a limited threat from a rogue nation. So, why is Moscow so concerned? Well, as missile defenses improve, they will pose a greater challenge to Russia and anyone else that might point a nuclear-tipped missile at Europe. Having spent heavily on new strategic systems over the past decade, Moscow doesn't want that investment rendered obsolete by new defensive technology, particularly when those offensive systems can be used to bully and intimidate the west.

Russia also prefers to focus on missile defense because it doesn't want a serious discussion of its own, revised nuclear strategy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has increasingly relied on its nuclear arsenal for deterrence at both the strategic and regional levels. Conflicts or contingencies that would have prompted a conventional response 20 years ago would now be met with a Russian nuclear threat.

Such policies are, of course, far more destabilizing than the planned missile shield in eastern Europe. But you wouldn't know that by reading the comments of Russian officials, or their depiction in the mainstream press. Masters of maskirovka--the art of deception--the Russians have successfully recast the nuclear issue as a debate on missile defenses.

And it's more than a bit ironic. If you don't believe us, do a Google search for "U.S. missile shield Destabilizing," "SS-27 destabilizing," and "Russian Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Destabilizing." The first search--on a defensive system--produces about 155,000 hits, many of them offering negative assessments on deployment of the missile shield. On the other hand, searches on truly destabilizing systems, including the SS-27 (Russia's newest ICBM) and the hypersonic glide vehicle, produce 1,040 and 463 hits respectively.

Is it any wonder that Moscow is so anxious to rattle the saber?


James Skylar Gerrond said...

While I don't disagree with all your conclusions, this line is confusing to me...

Conflicts or contingencies that would have prompted a conventional response 20 years ago would now be met with a Russian nuclear threat.

Are you saying that instead of responding with conventional force (i.e. blowing stuff up) the Russians would now only THREATEN to blow stuff up?

Unknown said...

Sky--Perhaps I should have phrased it better; with the collapse of Russia's conventional forces in the 1990s, Moscow began relying more heavily on its nuclear deterrent. In other words, contingencies that would have prompted a conventional response 20years ago would now be met with the threat--or actual use--of nuclear forces.