The Russian government is working hard to evolve their latest position opposing cooperation with NATO on a range of potential missile defense projects.  The latest from Dimitry Rogozin, Russian Ambassador to NATO and Special Envoy of President Medvedev on Missile Defense Cooperation with NATO, is that “crocodiles will fly” before any Middle Eastern nation will ever have the ability to develop and field long-range ballistic missiles, obviating the need for any NATO missile shield.  He said this, despite ample evidence as recently as last week, that Iran is making enormous progress towards that very goal, aided in part by North Korea.


 Let’s back up a bit first, for some context.  In a recent panel discussion in Brussels, I noted that the Obama Administration changed the Bush Administration’s plan for missile defense in Europe in September 2009 for two main reasons:  First, where the Bush plan focused on a potential future long-range ballistic missile threat from Iran, the Obama team decided to deploy missile defenses to deal with the here-and-now threat to Europe posed by existing Iranian short- and medium-range missiles that have been tested successfully and deployed in increasing numbers.  These missiles threaten portions of southern Europe today, including places where thousands of U.S. military personnel, their families, and contractors are currently based.  Second, the Obama plan calls for the deployment of missile interceptors (the Standard Missile-3, or SM-3) on ships, in Romania, and later in Poland, that are optimized for the growing Iranian threat. The SM-3s have no capability to defend against Russia’s vast inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) inventory, since these interceptors are too slow, and will not be deployed in sufficient numbers nor in the right locations to outmatch Russia’s ICBMs.

Mutual cooperation between NATO and Russia on missile defense could be beneficial for both sides, for example, by linking radar sites to enhance each side’s radar pictures of incoming ballistic missiles in flight. Despite these potential benefits, Russia has insisted on unreasonable limits and constraints on NATO’s missile defenses as a precondition for cooperation, claiming that without such limits, Russia would have to take additional measures to protect the viability of its long-standing strategic nuclear deterrent.

Rogozin, known for flowery rhetoric and a wry approach to these issues, responded with a series of questions consistent with the long-standing Russian position that the deployment of missile defenses in Europe is aimed at Russia, not Iran. Paraphrasing:

  • In the past, U.S. missile defenses were specifically targeted towards Russian missiles. Why should Russia believe that the current missile shield plan does not have the same goal as both the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the Third Site?
  • Why is the new missile shield equipped with the capability to intercept ICBMs when Middle Eastern countries will never obtain ICBMs? “Crocodiles will fly” before any Middle Eastern country ever develops ICBMs.
  • The U.S. Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) will evolve in four phases, during which NATO has assured Russia that it will not be targeted. How could Russia be sure that there will not be fifth, sixth, and seventh phases in which Russia would be targeted?
  • Why would the NATO missile shield against Iran be deployed in Poland, a location so close to Russia? Is NATO worried about Scandinavia?  Are they worried about polar bears?

So, on the very day after Iran reportedly tested 14 missiles of various ranges, including the Shahab-3 and Sejil-2 medium-range missiles that could potentially reach Europe, Israel, and U.S. military forces, in a major exercise dubbed “Great Prophet-6,” Rogozin claimed that there is no reason to deploy missile defenses against Iran. 

When Rogozin was finished, I responded with an analogy of my own, and then some answers to his questions.   The Russian position against cooperating now with NATO on missile defense due to fears of NATO’s future missile defense capability was like a couple deciding not to adopt a beautiful baby girl because they were afraid of how she might behave years later as a teenager.  I also made the following key points.

  • We often are surprised by international developments, and we need to stay ahead of the growing Iranian ballistic missile threat by pursuing an evolving, capable missile defense architecture.
  • The Obama plan for missile defense in Europe is different from the Reagan and George W. Bush plans in its focus on deploying missile defenses against the immediate, short- and medium-range ballistic missile threat.
  • Iran conducted a successful space launch in 2009 and has cooperated with North Korea on ballistic missile technologies. Many of the same technologies used for space launch are directly relevant to the development of ballistic missile capabilities. Therefore, it is reasonable to project that Iran will obtain ICBMs in the not-too-distant future.
  • The Obama Administration land-based missile defense sites planned for Europe (in Romania and Poland) were chosen based on publicly available analysis of possible trajectories of Iranian ballistic missiles. The northern Europe missile defense site in Poland was chosen to best address longer-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East towards Europe and the United States.

The real reason Russia does not want to cooperate with NATO on missile defense projects that would be in both countries’ interests is that there remain influential officials in the Russian government who do not trust the United States and would never agree to cooperate with NATO on missile defense, no matter how limited the system’s capabilities would be.  Russian President Dmitri Medvedev could do a world of good if he could rein in (or better yet, kick out) such officials, thereby removing the roadblocks that hinder Russian cooperation with NATO and the United States.  These officials are Medvedev’s own crocodiles, nipping at his heels and blocking the path to closer cooperation with the West.  Medvedev should indeed make these crocodiles fly by throwing them out. 

Barry Pavel is director of the International Security Program and director-designate and Arnold Kanter Chair of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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