NATO leaders will gather in Chicago on May 20 to set new directions for the alliance. Russia was invited to attend, in part to mark the 10th anniversary of the Russia-NATO Council, a consultative group designed to engage the former adversaries in defense planning. But President Vladimir Putin is staying home because of an impasse on what has become the single greatest source of friction between NATO and Russia: U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe, the nucleus of a wider future NATO system.
Missile defenses will ostensibly protect allies against limited regional threats from the Middle East, but Moscow fears the system will eventually undercut its nuclear deterrent and has threatened dangerous military countermeasures. Yet the two sides are not as far apart as they seem and cooperation on missile defense can satisfy both.
Two years ago in Lisbon, NATO and Russia resolved to work together and are still onboard. In April, Russia’s foreign ministry explained that joint missile defense could “change the matrix” of Russia-NATO relations. The U.S. State Department has called missile defense “the metaphor for the opportunity of getting things right.”
NATO says the defense, while facing daunting technical challenges, will be effective enough against a nuclear novice like Iran but will be useless against a sophisticated nuclear force like Russia’s. U.S. Missile Defense Agency officials claim the system is “not positioned or designed to intercept” Russian long-range missiles.
Moscow accepts that the hardware being deployed in the next six years is not the problem. However, Russia says its Ministry of Defense simulations show that modernized sensors and faster interceptor missiles in greater numbers and locations are worrying.
Moscow has not explicitly called for limits on future defense capability or a veto over future deployments. It wants “legal guarantees” specifying “technical-military criteria” ensuring that the system does not target Russia and allowing it to judge whether NATO actions correspond to plans. But any agreement requiring U.S. Senate ratification is a dead end. Instead, the State Department has offered political assurances, which Moscow claims are worthless because policies can change.
Yet there are many opportunities for cooperation, and progress has already been made. Joint NATO-Russia and U.S.-Russia intelligence assessments of the missile threat have already been successfully completed and should convince Russia that NATO’s plans are appropriate for the anticipated threat.
Both sides agree that preventing missile proliferation through diplomacy is essential. The Russian Foreign Ministry has pointed out it would be cheaper to tackle challenges before they evolve. Washington has said that: “Should the ballistic missile threat from nations like Iran be reduced, our missile defense system can adapt accordingly.”
NATO and Russia have resumed joint theater missile defense exercises, the last one taking place in Ottobrunn, Germany in March. Using computer simulations, the group has begun analyzing five concrete options for joint operations. Both sides agree that either side could pull the trigger, but there is no consensus yet on whether or how the two systems could be fully integrated.
Combined information from NATO and Russian sensors will provide better information on attacking missiles than either could collect alone. NATO welcomes Russia’s offer to share data from its radars in Armavir and Gabala.
Washington now proposes joint early warning and response planning centers – an idea originally suggested by Moscow in 2007. Last year, NATO and Russia demonstrated how data on potentially threatening aircraft could be shared; this could serve as a model.
Washington has asked Moscow to participate in missile flight tests, as it has done in the past, to show that the system presents no threat to Russia. The United States and Japan are collaborating on advanced interceptors; Russian, European and U.S. industry could also be engaged in joint projects on both early warning and interceptor missiles. NATO members Bulgaria, Greece and Slovakia own Russian-built S-300 extended air defense systems that could be integrated in alliance defenses.
There are several ways to address Russian concerns and simultaneously increase NATO security, and there is time. But Russia and NATO are talking past each other. Both sides seem driven more by politics than real threats. Russia resents that a major security decision is being made without consultation. NATO cannot allow the appearance of a major concession.
Both sides have to focus on real technical threats and response. This will only work if they start practical cooperation. When they do, they will find that they are not as far apart as the rhetoric suggests.
Ivanka Barzashka is a research associate at the Center for Science and Security Studies, King’s College London. Timur Kadyshev is a senior research scientist at the Center 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. Ivan Oelrich, an independent defense 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 defense.