Reuters passes on word that “Russia will stop developing some strategic weapons if the United States drops plans for a missile shield in Europe, Interfax news agency quoted the commander of Russia’s strategic missile forces as saying on Friday.” Correspondent Oleg Shchedrov conjectures that, “The remarks may be another step in Moscow’s efforts to build ties with the incoming U.S. administration but also reflect difficulties Russia faces in financing its ambitious military programs at a time of global economic crisis.”
“If Americans give up plans to deploy the third positioning region and other elements of the strategic missile defense system then certainly we will adequately respond to it,” Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov said. “We will simply not need a number of expensive programs,” he added echoing earlier Kremlin overtures to the new U.S. administration.
U.S. plans to deploy in Europe elements of its projected missile shield, intended to avert potential strikes from Iran and North Korea, have been a factor in the deterioration of bilateral ties to the lowest point since the Cold War. Russia says that U.S. plans to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, described as the “third positioning region” are targeted against it.
President Dmitry Medvedev has said Russia will deploy Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad enclave bordering NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Medvedev and his predecessor Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, have also said Russia was designing new weapons, including strategic rockets, capable of breaking through any missile defense in the next 30-50 years.
Oddly, U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield, ridiculed as unworkable by U.S. scientists and defense experts since Ronald Reagan floated his Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed “Star Wars” by critics) have continually caused great consternation in Russia. Many observers credit the specter of SDI with causing a defense spending frenzy that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. Now, promises to build a defense shield we can’t afford and can’t reliably implement is sparking major concessions.
This would be a win-win. Neither Russia nor the United States need to spend huge sums on systems that one hopes would never be used. And NATO-Russia cooperation would likely be more effective in dealing with Iran and North Korea than a theoretical missile shield.
There are two problems, however. First, can we trust the Russians to keep their word? Certainly, they’ve largely ignored their promises to the EU with respect to Georgia. Reagan’s continual citing of the old Russian proverb “Trust but verify” would be apt here. Given the economics of the situation, though, it shouldn’t be much of an issue. Russia wanted to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia; it doesn’t want to spend billions on these missiles.
Second, the Poles and others in Eastern Europe see the promised shield as proof positive of U.S. commitment to their security. Other options, though, such as permanent basing of U.S. forces in their countries could provide similar assurance (although, granted, causing consternation in Russia).
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.