NATO-Russia Missile Defense as an Impossible Dream?

The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS).

Long gone are the days of overt mistrust and frosty relations between NATO and Russia. Following the rupture in their relations in the wake of the war in Georgia, the two former rivals have managed to put their differences aside and are now in intense discussion to explore new possibilities for cooperation. Nothing, perhaps, better illustrates the ongoing rapprochement than the recently announced decision by Brussels and Moscow to join forces in developing a joint missile defense shield to protect Europe. Or at least so it seems.

 The original plans by the Bush administration to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic have been scrapped in favor of a much leaner and smaller system, possibly with Russian participation. At the NATO summit in Lisbon last November, both Allied and Russian officials spoke of the historical opportunity to reinvigorate their relationship while heavily advertising the joint missile defense as the boon for cooperation.

Yet, hopes pinned at NATO and Russia turning a joint missile defense project into a vehicle to advance a lasting partnership are not warranted. Disagreements abound the missile defense controversy is likely derail NATO-Russia relations in the long run. This became evident during President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent speech when he stated in no uncertain terms that the success of the current thaw depends on how on how NATO and Russia implement what they agreed to in Lisbon, most notably plans for a joint missile defense system in Europe.

Technically feasible but…

Although still in its infancy, the joint missile defense project seems quite feasible, at least, on paper. Both sides can boast of the technological wherewithal to defend Europe against a limited missile attack.

For instance, the American Navy operates the Aegis destroyers which are capable of shooting down short range missiles. Similarly, the latest version of Patriot anti-aircraft missile system can be used to the same purpose. Some of those systems have even found their way to the arsenals of American allies in NATO.

On the Russian side, there are S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, which can be converted to missile interceptors. Those systems are considered up to par if not better than comparable American Patriot missiles. Thanks to its geographic proximity to Iran, Russian radars can play an important role in monitoring the Iranian missile threat. Moreover, Moscow has recently announced it is going to create a unified strategic command center to shore up its country’s air defense. A more consolidated air defense system might help make cooperation with Russia more appealing for NATO countries.

The question remains, however, as to what extent the two systems can be integrated since this will one way or another entail  both sides revealing sensitive details about their respective weapon systems to each other. But at the end of the day this is a decision less for technical expert but rather politicians to make.  

It’s the politics, stupid.

Although technical hurdles are not inconsiderable, it is mostly political considerations that are likely to condemn the project of a joint missile defense to failure. Despite proclamations to contrary, both Russia and NATO are at loggerheads over the form and extent of their missile defense cooperation. Therefore, one should be under no illusion that the joint missile defense is a done deal because NATO and Russia officials have given it their blessing. Russian diplomats continue to voice their concern while they go to great lengths to emphasis that unless made part of it Russia would mount fierce opposition to any missile defense system in Europe. 

At the moment, there are two competing visions that seem to be rather difficult to be reconciled. NATO proposes to build two independent systems whereby confining NATO-Russia cooperation only to sharing of intelligence data and conducting joint military exercises. NATO countries also hope that by offering Russia participation in the missile defense it might drop its opposition to the deployment of NATO missile defense in Europe.

As for Russia, on the other hand, it insists on integrating the two systems as much as possible. Moscow has suggested to the Alliance that they should each be responsible for providing missile defense protection for their own sector in Europe. In other words, the Russia proposal would in essence mean that Russia would become the sole recourse for protection for some European NATO member states if faced with a missile attack.

In this regard, Moscow pursues two strategic objectives with regard to the European missile defense shield. First, Moscow wants to make sure that any European missile defense system cannot be used against Russia, thereby it seeks to keep as tight control over the system as possible. Second, its participation in NATO’s missile defense presents Russia with a possibility to increase its say in NATO decision making through the backdoor. The bottom line is that Moscow demands nothing short of veto over the use of the European missile defense system.  

No wonder that the Russian proposal for ‘sectoral missile defense’ is rather unappealing to NATO countries. This goes a long way to ensuring that Russia can render the missile defense. According to the Wall Street Journal, Russian President Medvedev allegedly made this offer to his NATO counterparts during the Lisbon summit last November but it was turned down by the Alliance. The Russian officials continue to argue that only a sectoral -based missile defense would ensure the equality of the two parties.

Dark Clouds Hang Over European Missile Defense

The uncertainty about the proposed European defense missile shield can potentially scuttle any hopes for NATO and Russia to forge a more durable partnership. Granted that NATO and Russia now agree in principle that they would like to team up to counter threat of ballistic missiles, a host of unresolved practical and more importantly political issues need to be resolved first. The fundamental disagreement remains rooted in the difference over the future form of collaboration between NATO and Russia in defending Europe against the threat of ballistic missiles. Whereas the Alliance seeks to develop two separate systems working pretty much independently of each other Russia wants to lock the two systems, thereby securing itself an effective veto. At the moment, the officials on both sides, partly trying to dodge the subject, defer to the report due not until June that promises to shed more light on possibilities for cooperation on missile defense. However, given their profound differences Moscow and Brussels might be heading for a disappointment when NATO and Russia defense ministers meet in June. Despite the fact that Moscow continues to threaten to counter any missile defense system, which would not guarantee Russia a significant role to play in it, it is highly unlikely that this would result in a new arms race. This is simply because any new arms race with the West would prove too costly for the Russian economy to sustain.  Russia might want to engage a costly arms race with the West. Nevertheless, any major row over the European missile defense might put an end to the hopes of developing a more lasting partnership between Russia and NATO. Hence, a more prudent course of action would be for the NATO and Russia leaders to focus less on missile defense and instead explore more other potential areas for cooperation that are less likely to turn into a major disappointment for the both sides.

Jakub Kulhanek is head of the East European Programme at the Association for International Affairs in the Czech Republic and currently with the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham (UK).

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