Moscow’s Missile Defense Misgivings


2013-06-02 By Richard Weitz

Russian-NATO differences over ballistic missile defense (BMD) were unsurprisingly a major source of disagreement at the International Conference on “Military and Political Aspects of European Security,” hosted in a major Moscow hotel by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD), on May 23.

Notwithstanding all the changes the NATO missile defense program has experienced, with major restructurings at the beginning of the Barack Obama administration’s two terms, the Russians continued to object to the envisaged NATO and US missile defense architectures.

At the conference, Army General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and a First Deputy Minister of Defense, said that NATO’s missile defenses remain a serious military and political problem” since, “despite some changes in our partners’ plans, we cannot be quite sure that the U.S. missile defense system does not have anti-Russian potential.”

The Obama administration justified its cancellation of the planned of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB long-range interceptors on technical and cost grounds. The missiles were to have been deployed in Eastern Europe with the mission of destroying any Iranian or other adversary ICBMs launched toward the United States.

Nonetheless, like the 2009 restructuring of U.S. BMD plans for Europe, which was justified on the basis of new intelligence regarding Iran’s slower than expected progress in developing an ICBM, the March 2013 decision eliminated a U.S. BMD program that Russian officials and analysts had repeatedly cited as a potentially serious threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Even so, Russian officials have denied that the recent cancellation of Phase IV of the European Phased Adoptive Approach resolves their objections to the NATO missile defense efforts.

Russian tactical nuclear warhead in the field during the 1990s (Credit:
Russian tactical nuclear warhead in the field during the 1990s For Russia, such weapons remain credible, crucial and are being augmented. They seem as well outside of the domain for which other nations can express concern and curb Russian aspirations. (Credit:

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a first deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Relations Committee, argued that the three phases of the EPAA that are continuing remained a major threat, as did the planned augmentation of the ground-based interceptors in Alaska and other planned increases in U.S. BMD capabilities.

Russian officials cite the Obama administration’s justification that the U.S. decision was taken for financial and technical reasons as signaling that it could easily be reversed — a perception reinforced by what they called the unpredictable nature of U.S. BMD plans.

They also objected to the unilateral U.S. approach towards missile defense, with the Russian government learning of the new U.S. BMD plans only from media sources and having no input into or even advanced knowledge of the decision. They continue to deny that Iran and North Korea have the intent or capacity to attack NATO Europe with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile — implying that NATO and US BMD programs are designed against Russia and perhaps China.

Russia-NATO negotiations on a joint or mutually supportive BMD architecture for Europe have reached an impasse.

Both sides claim to see great advantages in constructing a joint system, including that it would raise their strategic partnership to unprecedented heights.

In a recent interview in Foreign Policy magazine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that “doing it together with the United States and the Europeans — would not only be the most efficient way to try to find a response to the threat of missile proliferation, but it would bring our relationship with NATO — the Russia and NATO relationship — to a qualitatively new level.”

But Russia’s insistence that it have equal say in the building and running of any joint system, and Moscow’s requirement that the architecture not hard its perceived security interests, has proved impossible to realize in practice.

February 22, 2012. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, during a visit to the Taman Kalinin Motorized Rifle Brigade of the October Revolution Banner and the Red Banner. Putin was shown military equipment, special weapons, small arms and knives, communication equipment and equipment for special forces soldiers. (RIA Novosti/Aleksey Nikolskyi) 

Initially ambitious proposals to build a single integrated Russia-NATO BMD network that would combine BMD assets from Russia and the West proved impractical given the incompatibilities in both sides’ missile defense technologies, capabilities, and concepts. Although Putin offered NATO countries use of Russian radars, he conditioned any joint approach to NATO’s not deploying systems that Russian experts said would threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. NATO countries did not consider the proposed terms a favorable deal. They also did not want to give the Russian government the ability to veto use of NATO BMD systems and did not want to share sensitive information or technologies with Russia for fear that these might leak to Iran or North Korea.

The Russian government then proposed a sectorial approach to joint BMD in Europe.

The idea was that Russia and NATO would build two independent BMD architectures, but these networks would cooperate to offer reciprocal protection. In particular, Moscow said Russia would shoot down any missiles heading toward NATO that overthrew its territory. NATO governments argued that they could not accept an arrangement in which a non-NATO member was responsible for the security of alliance members. There was also skepticism that Russia, with its less advanced BMD technologies, had the capacity to intercept a long-range ballistic missile heading towards Western Europe or the United States.

The current Russian demand is that the United States guarantee that its missile defenses will not undermine Russia’s strategic potential and that any NATO systems will be used against possible attacks only from the states outside the Euro-Atlantic space. In particular, they demand that the U.S. government, acting in practice on NATO’s behalf, sign a legally binding agreement that said the United States would not use its BMD systems to harm Russia’s deterrent.

In addition to the affirmation of intent, they want the treaty to include mandatory transparency measures to assure Russia of the system’s limited potential and obligatory constraints to limit its future capacity to pose a threat to Russia. They propose to operationalize such a guarantee, and make NATO’s evolving BMD architecture more predictable, by having the treaty regulate such parameters as the location and coverage of BMD launchers and radars (including those on ships) as well as constrain the number and speed of the interceptors.

The United States and other NATO governments refuse to sign a legally binding treaty constraining Western missile defenses as potentially weakening their self-defense capabilities. The U.S. Congress would never ratify such a treaty. Instead, they have offered enhanced data exchanges and cooperation on modest joint projects as a means to reassure Moscow that the system does not threaten Russia. Russian officials have dismissed such offers as inadequate.

Western analysts have noted that Russia might fear that its participation in successful joint BMD project with the West could help legitimize NATO’s independent BMD programs despite Moscow’s concerns.

For example, Russian representatives, unlike their Western counterparts, claim that their recent computer-assisted BMD exercise with NATO demonstrated the operational advantages of a joint missile-defense system compared to the “cooperative” interaction options, also known as the “independent but coordinated approach.”

The Russian government is aware that the United States will not sign such a treaty constraining the improvement of its BMD systems. For this reason, Russia has been taking a range of actions that Russian officials describe as countermeasures to NATO’s BMD program. Some of these measures are proactive, such as launching new strategic research and development programs. For example, The Russian government is developing new ballistic missiles that Moscow claims can more effectively circumvent BMD systems. Russia claims to have carried out a successful test of a new ICBM in May 2012.

Russia is also taking various hedging measures against possible improvements U.S. BMD capabilities.

At the conference, Gerasimov stated that Russia had developed “a set of military-technical measures aimed at neutralizing the possible negative influence of the global U.S. missile defense system on the potential of the Russian nuclear forces” and that “its implementation will depend on our own assessment of the capabilities of the US and NATO missile defense systems to weaken the potential of the Russian strategic nuclear forces.” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov implied that Russia would deploy anti-satellite weapons, stating that “the elimination of the space segment of the system can be, under certain circumstances, the most effective way of countering missile defense.”

RS-24 Yars Missile Launch. Credit Photo: 

Interestingly, some Russians acknowledge that NATO’s missile defenses do not present a serious threat to their nuclear deterrent. For example, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Russia’s ambassador to NATO and now in charge f the Russian defense industry, said last month, “We have solved the issue of penetrating the missile shield. We regret that the United States waste their money on missile defense and compel us to do the same. The missile shield is nothing for us; it’s a bluff. It poses no military threat, but remains a political and economic problem.”

He elaborated that Russia has had to increase spending on its offensive nuclear forces and take other asymmetric measures to overcome the shield, which Moscow considered excessive given the absence of a clear and imminent missile threat to NATO:

We are carrying out a rearmament program until 2020, it would enable us to renew the hundred percent of our strategic forces… within the framework of international commitments” such as New START.

Rogozin said that it would be better if Russia and NATO had spent the money on funding from other important needs, such as “[countering] the asteroid threat,” whose seriousness was evident in the recent meteorite explosion over Chelyabinsk.

Both Western and Russian authors have cited other reasons why the Russian government opposes NATO BMD, including the geopolitical positioning of BMD around Russia’s periphery (which some Russians consider a special security zone) and domestic politics (for justifying increased military spending, restrictions on civil liberties, and to rally popular support behind the government against foreign threats).

In any case, the debate over BMD at the conference reaffirmed my belief that the Russian government will oppose the U.S. BMD program regardless of any changes in its planned growth.

For an earlier piece on the conference see the following:

Editor’s Note: There is significant continuity with the Soviet Union with regard to Russian positions on European security and the Middle East.  The Euromissile crisis revolved around largely the absence in the Soviet view of a need for a U.S. response to the new Russian missiles because no response was needed. 

And then when President Reagan introduced the Star Wars initiative, the Soviets positioned themselves to argue in Europe that this was designed to protect the U.S. but not its allies. 

Unbeknownst to the world was the secret agreement between France and the U.S. in sharing intelligence known as the Farwell Affair, where the U.S. learned of the extensive espionage system of obtaining detailed information on U.S. and Western systems.

With the Farewell Affair leading to shut down of many intelligence sources, the Russians were now left to compete on their own against the Star Wars system, which the Soviet Union was not able to do.This combination of significant espionage activity to shape the evolution of one’s new military systems coupled with public diplomacy to argue that the Americans do not themselves need to “respond” to any new systems shaped by a core adversary is being repeated in the 21st century by the PRC.

New missile defense technologies when combined with new multi mission systems like the F-35 can re-cast how defense is conducted and will again complicate the Russian approach.  They certainly will generate many political arguments as to why technological change is “unnecessary” but the Russians themselves do very little to help remove the threats driving the need for new defense technologies, systems and approaches.  Their record in Syria and Iran certainly shows little willingness or capability to attenuate the threat to Europe. In this sense there is more continuity than change from the Soviet Union to Russia.