U.S. and NATO Should Reject Russian Demands on Missile Defense

Baker Spring /

According to The New York Times, Russia is seeking written guarantees that missile defense systems deployed in Europe by the U.S. and NATO in the future will not threaten Russia. The U.S., NATO, and Russia are in the midst of negotiations regarding the broader topic of missile defense cooperation.

On the face of it, it would appear that the Russian demand is reasonable, because missile defense systems are not offensive and inherently pose no threat to the territory of any state. Surface appearances, however, are deceiving—because Russian statements last year, specifically in the context of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), define missile defense systems as a “threat” to Russia if they are capable of countering Russian offensive missiles. On this basis, the U.S. and NATO should reject the Russian demand for written assurances.

There are two reasons why the U.S. and NATO should reject this Russian demand. The first has to do with finding new, post-Cold War foundations for strategic stability. The second has to do with the capabilities of missile defense systems to handle a variety of different threats.

  1. 1. Post-Cold War Stability. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union (at least rhetorically) determined that maintaining strategic stability between the two adversaries was best achieved by keeping both sides vulnerable to nuclear attacks by the other. This policy of mutual vulnerability was based on two salient characteristics of the Cold War. First, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were ideological and political adversaries. The second was that the two countries were the dominant powers in a bipolar world. Russia’s current demand that U.S. and NATO missile defense capabilities not pose a threat to Russia represents an attempt to extend this Cold War concept. This would be wrong-headed. The U.S., NATO, and Russia are no longer ideological adversaries, and there is no reason that these relationships should be based on mutual threats. Besides, it is no longer a bipolar world. The relatively simple and straightforward concept for maintaining stability through vulnerability is overwhelmed by the complexities of a proliferated world. What was deemed to be stabilizing during the Cold War is becoming increasingly destabilizing as nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them proliferate. The U.S., NATO, and Russia need to establish a new concept for stability based on defending themselves against the means of strategic attack.
  2. 2. Defending Against Non-Russian Missiles. The second reason the U.S. and NATO should reject the Russian demand involves the inherent requirements for creating effective missile defenses. If defenses are effective against non-Russian missile threats, they will be at least marginally effective against Russian missiles. The U.S. and Russia went down this path of attempting to segregate missile defenses for countering non-Russian missiles and Russian missiles in the 1990s. These agreements were referred to as demarcation agreements, where missile defenses deemed to be effective against Russian missiles were sharply limited, and those for countering missiles from non-Russian sources were left unrestricted. These demarcation agreements were never brought into force, because the U.S. Congress found that the Clinton Administration was accepting limits on the capabilities of missile defense systems for countering missiles outside Russia to ensure that they had no spill-over capability to counter Russian missiles. Leaving the U.S. and NATO vulnerable to Russian missiles would mean that they would also be leaving themselves vulnerable to missiles from other sources.

For these reasons, U.S. and NATO negotiators need to drive Russia toward a different agreement on missile defense cooperation. This agreement should reaffirm the right of all sides to defend themselves against strategic attacks to the best of their abilities, based on the principle of non-aggression. This agreement would permit the U.S. and NATO to accept an assurance that the missile defense systems not be directed against or pose any kind of threat to the territory of any country, including Russia. Achieving this kind of agreement necessarily means rejecting the current Russian demand.