Coming in From the Cold War

At Wednesday’s meeting of NATO defense ministers with their Russian counterpart, the Western alliance will seek to win Russian support for and cooperation in a European missile-defense system.

Moscow’s assent would constitute a major step toward rapprochement between NATO and its former enemy, advancing the cause of anchoring Russia firmly in the Euro-Atlantic community.

Moscow is no longer vehemently denouncing any and all U.S. talk of missile defense and instead appears ready to explore ways to merge its own evolving system with NATO’s. Nonetheless, the issue is far from settled and, if not managed carefully, has the potential to scuttle the progress already made in resetting Russia relations with the West.

The nub of the problem is that Moscow fears that NATO’s missile-defense system could eventually threaten the efficacy of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Although Washington has made amply clear that the system is targeted against Iranian missiles and that it would in no way degrade Russia’s deterrent, Moscow remains unconvinced. It has therefore asked for binding assurances that would limit the scope of NATO’s system. Washington justifiably rejects the notion that Russia should dictate the parameters of NATO missile defense — the mere suggestion of which is enough to prompt a riot on Capitol Hill.

The United States has sought to alleviate Moscow’s concerns by making Russia a stakeholder in the evolving system. Through sharing technology and building linkages between the NATO system and Russia’s, Washington contends that Russia would be able to divine the benign nature of U.S. plans and enjoy the additive benefits of working with the NATO system.

Russia, however, envisages a level of cooperation that goes well beyond what NATO has in mind. The U.S. is prepared to share only so much sensitive technology with Russia, and NATO would hardly countenance arrangements that would give Russia operational control of its system. Especially for NATO members hailing from Central Europe, sharing privileged technology or command authority with Russia is tantamount to letting the fox in the hen-house.

Wednesday’s NATO-Russia dialogue will hardly resolve this stalemate. The bottom line is that Russia does not yet trust the United States or NATO enough to give a green light to Washington’s plans. Nor do Washington and its NATO allies trust Russia enough to fling open their doors and make Russia an equal partner in their missile-defense system.

Nonetheless, NATO and Russia should map out a concrete work plan that enables them to gradually build common ground on missile defense. Already in the works is an effort to draw up a legal framework for increased sharing of technology between the United States and Russia. Once in place, this arrangement would enhance the transparency of NATO’s missile-defense plans and give Russia more confidence in U.S. intentions.

NATO and Russia should also establish “fusion” centers where they can share relevant data, coordinate missile threat alerts and even exchange information on targeting inceptors. Establishing a joint research center on missile defense offers another vehicle for deepening NATO-Russia collaboration.

Orchestrating a breakthrough on missile defense will require more than incremental progress on technological and operational cooperation. Such progress must be backstopped by a broader effort to continue deepening ties between Russia and the West.

For starters, both parties should make more of the NATO-Russian Council, the main forum for consultations between the alliance and Moscow. NATO members must do a much better job of making the council a vehicle for real give and take and the incorporation of Russian concerns into NATO decisions.

In return, Russia must stop using the forum for theatrical obstruction and instead capitalize on the opportunity for deliberation and cooperation.

NATO and Russia can also deepen mutual confidence and trust by advancing concrete collaboration on many fronts. Russia can enhance its assistance to NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan. Having succeeded in concluding the New Start Treaty to reduce their nuclear arsenals, the United States and Russia can now focus on conventional arms control. More contact between U.S. and Russian armed forces would be especially helpful in diluting the mutual suspicions left behind by the Cold War. In addition, there is plenty of room for more NATO-Russia cooperation on peacekeeping, naval operations to combat piracy and drug trafficking and cybersecurity.

The United States and the European Union should continue to develop their economic linkages with Russia. The more integrated Russia is into Western markets the greater incentive it has to lay to rest its strategic rivalry with the West. Finalizing Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization would advance this agenda.

Should NATO and Russia succeed in reaching an accommodation on missile defense, there will still be tough disagreements ahead, including over the future of NATO enlargement and the status of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Nonetheless, a durable reconciliation between NATO and Russia is as last becoming a realistic prospect. A deal on missile defense is not yet at hand. But Wednesday’s meeting can help lay the foundation for that deal, moving Europe closer to finally including Russia in the post-Cold War settlement.

Charles A. Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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