By Ivanka Barzashka, Timur Kadyshev, Götz Neuneck, and Ivan Oelrich
In a nationally televised address on 23 November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Russian-NATO security relations were near collapse because of failure to resolve Russian concerns about a planned NATO ballistic missile defences (BMD) system. He went on to describe a series of military measures meant to counter nascent NATO defences, including moving offensive missiles into the Russian territory between Poland and the Baltics and pulling out of nuclear arms agreement with the U.S if there is no progress on the controversial BMD issue.
Fortunately, the problem is not as urgent as Russia claims and NATO and Russia, working together, can still preserve nuclear stability across Europe.
A year ago in Lisbon, NATO made an official pledge to defend Europe´s territory from attack from ballistic missiles, presumably from Iran though this was officially left unsaid. NATO has said the system is not directed against Russia and seems genuinely baffled by Russia’s worries. But military planners, NATO’s as well as Russia’s, deal with capabilities, not reassurances.
The tragedy, if this confrontation results in a breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, is that almost nothing that anybody claims to be worrying about is real yet. Most scientists are extremely sceptical about whether missile defences are even technically possible, especially against an advanced country like Russia that can deploy large numbers of offensive missiles and an array of countermeasures. Even highly orchestrated tests have not always been successful. Europeans political support is shallow. For the foreseeable future, the “NATO” system will essentially be an American system, paid for by American taxpayers who may quickly lose patience if Europe does not soon pick up most of the costs, which currently seems unlikely.
On the Russian side, Medvedev complains that NATO members “have not showed enough willingness” to cooperate but “simply repeat” that missile defences “are not directed against Russia,” but this overlooks the many suggestions for cooperation that have been made, and some that have even been started.
There are still ample opportunities for reconciliation. The structure of NATO defences is still evolving today and is years away from final implementation. Indeed, Russia’s concerns are not so much with today’s plans but the great uncertainty in future developments. That is why Russia would like to see a formal treaty limiting missile defence, but that is a political non-starter in the U.S. Senate.
The best path forward is to develop closer cooperation between NATO and Russia on missile defence. Cooperation ensures transparency, avoids surprises, and reduces the dangers that occur when both sides start planning against worse cases. Cooperation could include information sharing and regular joint threat assessments, and joint military exercises and technology development.
Russia and the US have already developed an assessment of the ballistic missile threat and a similar effort with NATO is underway.
NATO and Russia today share air defence information about aircraft flying near the Russian-NATO border through the Cooperative Airspace Initiative and this could be a model for how a centre sharing information on missile warning would work, including links between Russian and NATO radar networks.
Russia and NATO have already cooperated on defences against short-range missiles, including via joint military exercises, and this effort should be expanded. An integrated, shared missile defence system is no longer on the table—Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “it won’t be a big secret to say that agreement could not be reached on a sectorial approach”—but parallel systems could be closely intertwined in the future with radars sharing targeting information and any enemy missiles aimed near the NATO-Russian border being engaged by both sides.
If, as the UShas claimed, NATO defences are not being built in response to Russia, there should be no objection to letting Russia closely observe tests of its missile interceptors. The US has already made an offer to Russia to view one of its tests (which Moscow has rejected as inadequate). Joint tests should become standard and expanded to allow access to telemetry data and more missile performance details including its warhead. If this theoretically helps Russia overcome Western defence systems, so be it. Joint development of a few key defence components would give all sides confidence in the capabilities, and limitations, of the system. In the longer run, European NATO countries and Russia could jointly develop, build, and operate early warning satellites, radars, and even interceptors.
NATO does not want to appear to be bending to Russian pressure, so it charges ahead with missile defence, telling Russia that it can jump on board if it wants, but the train is leaving the station one way or another. Russia, for its part, only grudgingly acknowledges NATO’s existing efforts at cooperation. Hawks on both sides seem to have a teary-eyed nostalgia for the Cold War but the two sides are, in fact, not nearly as far apart as the harsh rhetoric suggests. Cooperation and transparency can avoid a dangerous cycle of action and reaction in Europe.
Ivanka Barzashka is a research associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College London; Timur Kadyshev is a senior research scientist at the Centre of Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow; Götz Neuneck is the deputy director and head of the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Disarmament at the Arms Control and Risk Technologies at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg; and Ivan Oelrich, an independent defence consultant, is former vice president of the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. The authors are working on a collaborative project, which aims to assess technical options for NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defence.