Russia’s objections to U.S. missile defense development and deployment have been on the agenda of consecutive American Administrations starting with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. For President Obama, it became a high priority as Moscow turned missile defense disagreement into a principal bone of contention. But he threw it under the bus, sending all the wrong signals to friend and foe alike. He has also forgone an opportunity to extract important concessions from the Kremlin on Syria and Iraq, for example.
Moscow and Obama’s White House view the missile defense dispute through the prism of a broader U.S. political agenda—and disagreements, such as efforts to further reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, Moscow’s continuous support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Russia’s lack of real opposition to Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, and North Korea’s truculence.
Yet the Obama Administration’s decision last Friday to “restructure” European missile defense, announced by Secretary Chuck Hagel, came as a surprise—and a unilateral concession to Moscow.
However, “restructuring” the SM-3 IIB out of existence would not change Russia’s negative position toward EPAA Phase III. It would also not remove Russia’s concerns related to future development of the U.S. system.
As the Russian Foreign Ministry stated, the Kremlin will continue to insist on legally binding guarantees that U.S. missile defenses are not aimed at it and that would allow Russia to access sensitive telemetric data and limit vital parameters of a U.S. strategic defensive system.
Unsurprisingly, the Hagel statement was not enough to satisfy the Kremlin. It pocketed the unprecedented concession and asked for more.
Washington’s decision to scrap plans to place SM-3 IIB missile defense elements in Poland does nothing to address Moscow’s national security concerns and will not affect its stance on the issue, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said. Ryabkov added that there was no connection between Russia’s objections to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in Europe and Hagel’s announcement, possibly because there were no negotiations: “That is not a concession to Russia, nor do we regard it as such.… All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a US and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain.”
Russia has threatened a range of countermeasures against NATO’s missile defenses, including tactical nuclear missile deployment in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and improvements to its strategic nuclear missile arsenal.
The decision to scrap Phase IV of EPAA will damage relations with Poland and signal to Central European states that the Obama Administration cares little about them, as it did not consult or prepare those governments for its action.
This decision reflects the shift away from a Euro-centric strategic posture and is undoing the post–Cold War security system in Europe. All the talk of NATO expansion now sounds hollow, as the U.S. is increasingly focusing in the Asia–Pacific region. With the disengagement from Afghanistan approaching, our allies will wonder about the ability of the alliance to shape a long-term strategy in its out-of-area engagements. Budget concerns may be the driver in D.C., but Europeans may come away questioning the advantages of an Atlantic connection, which would not be in their interest—or ours.
Finally, this is exactly the wrong signal to Iran on the eve of President Obama’s trip to the Middle East. Not only will the U.S. not support a military action of last resort against the Iranian nuclear program; limiting missile defense will severely limit our ability to protect our European allies against the Iranian missile threat.