A European Missile Defense System to Replace the Great Game
No. 2 2011 April/June
Dmitry V. Trenin

National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
The Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),
Moscow, Russia
The Center for International Security
The Sector for Non-Proliferation and Arms Limitation
Lead Researcher

How Russia and the U.S. Could Start Demilitarizing Their Relations

Dmitry Trenin’s new book, Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story, has just been published by Carnegie-Brookings in Washington, D.C.

At their meeting in Deauville in May 2011, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev failed to agree on a statement establishing the parameters of Russia-U.S./NATO cooperation on missile defenses in Europe. The subsequent defense ministers meeting of the NATO-Russia Council held in early June proved predictably fruitless. The frustration among the observers, richly reflected in the media, was almost palpable. Yet the game is not over. The stakes are high for both Russia and the Western alliance. One option is to project their Cold War strategic adversity further into the 21st century, thereby putting at risk all prospects for Russia modernization and losing another historic moment for securing peace in the Euro-Atlantic region amid the challenges faced by the West elsewhere. The alternative option is to go from strategic competition over to strategic cooperation, and build a security community between themselves.


The dilemma faced by Moscow and its Western partners is obvious: either to maintain the ambivalence in their mutual relations, which emerged after the end of the Cold War, or start strategic cooperation. Both Russia and the West have become accustomed to this ambivalence. It is not an optimal state of mutual relations and is fraught with recurring crises, like the one that led to a war in the Caucasus in 2008. But it is psychologically comfortable, as it does not make the parties take difficult decisions, seek to overcome the prejudices that have piled up over the decades, and risk their political positions today for the sake of unguaranteed achievements some time in the future.

If Russia and NATO fail to reach an agreement on cooperation in missile defense, each party will go its own way. The U.S. and its allies will build a defense system in Europe to protect it from Iranian ballistic missiles, while the Russian Federation will primarily seek to defend itself against U.S. strikes. When the European Phased Adaptive Approach, announced by the Obama administration, reaches advanced – third and fourth – stages, Moscow will view U.S. interceptor missiles as a threat to Russia’s deterrent potential.

This factor may bring about a new race in strategic offensive and defensive weapons and force Moscow to revise its foreign policy for an isolationist and neo-confrontational one. Russia’s socio-economic policy would be subordinated to the besieged fortress logic and national security requirements. These limitations – and the resource-depleting arms race – would prevent Russia from meeting the modernization challenge and stall the country’s development, which would pose a serious threat of its decay and breakup already when the “Cool War” is over.

The Europeans, in turn, are not convinced that they are facing a missile threat from Iran, so they do not at all want to pay for a missile defense system which, what is more, may bring about tensions in relations with Russia. On the other hand, Moscow’s statement on a possible deployment of Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad Region can change the situation. Countermeasures like this can convince Europe of the need for American protection – be it from Iran or Moscow.

However, if the U.S. deploys its missile defense system in Europe and if it consolidates NATO in the face of new tensions with Russia, it will not necessarily gain strategically. The continuing rise of China; the fundamental changes in the Middle East, with prospects unclear not only for Egypt but also Saudi Arabia; the unsolved Iranian nuclear issue; the instability and uncertainty in Afghanistan and, more importantly, Pakistan – all these factors should make a return to strategic tensions with Moscow least desirable for Washington.

If all these considerations outweigh the momentary comfort and aversion to risk as such, then Russia, the United States and Europe, which are now on the eve of a “transformation moment” in their strategic relations, will be able to cross this threshold. The parties have been talking about the end of the Cold War ever since Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush met off Malta in 1989; however, they have never escaped from the psychological captivity of the confrontation. The Declaration of last year’s Lisbon summit of the NATO-Russia Council, which set the goal of building a strategic partnership between NATO and Russia, has also had little effect.

The U.S.-Russian New START Treaty, signed and ratified in 2010, has not changed the situation, either. It is certainly important and valuable as a symbol of efficiency of the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations and as a continuation of the military-strategic dialogue between Moscow and Washington. Nevertheless, the Treaty and the arms control process, which brought it to life, are instruments of regulating relations of strategic hostility or, at least, rivalry. By regulating these relations, the START Treaty only reproduces and strengthens them.

Further steps in the field of control over armaments – strategic, sub-strategic, nuclear and conventional ones – are certainly necessary, but it should be borne in mind that these steps will not take the relations between Moscow and Washington and between Russia and the West in general beyond the frameworks established in the era of the Soviet-American confrontation. Moreover, the lower the allowed ceilings of armaments, the harder it will be to take the next step – especially for Russia, considering the gap between the parties in their economic, scientific, technological, financial and conventional military potentials. Preserving the 60-years-old model of strategic relations in basically different conditions would be a trap for Moscow.


The existence of this trap has been implicitly recognized in Russia. Over the past two decades, Moscow has repeatedly tried to find a way out of it and twice made the same maneuvers. In the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, it was popular to speak of Russia’s possible integration into Western security structures by joining NATO and establishing a military-political alliance with the United States. In the second half of the 1990s and the mid-2000s, it was a dominant idea that Russia should create a geopolitical counterweight to the United States by forming a “center of power” in the Commonwealth of Independent States, by achieving rapprochement with non-Western centers of power, especially with China, and establishing situational alliances with Washington’s opponents – from Belgrade and Baghdad to Tehran and Caracas. Those efforts have not resulted in an alliance with America or in a satisfactory balance in relations with it.

A military-political alliance with Washington, including through joining NATO, is unrealistic in principle: obviously, Moscow will not sacrifice its strategic independence. This is a deep conviction of the overwhelming majority of the Russian political elite, which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. There are also many other obstacles to Russia’s joining the North Atlantic Alliance, largely due to the position of Western countries, but Russia’s strategic independence is the starting point for any realistic discussion of parameters of military-political cooperation with the West.

Creating a counterweight to American influence through a variety of geopolitical combinations would not only be futile, but it would also produce the opposite results. Consolidation of the CIS into a “Russian bloc” would not only involve many difficulties, but it is also practically unattainable. Suffice it to analyze the foreign policies of major CIS countries – Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Belarus or, at least, to ask oneself why none of the CIS countries has followed in Russia’s footsteps and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Support for anti-American regimes is fraught with considerable risks because of Moscow’s obvious inability to control these regimes. In addition, close contacts with obvious dictatorships involve reputation risks. The only real way is to side with China. However, Beijing prefers to act alone and does not need an ally – especially one seeking equal status, which is not materially backed though. At the same time, it would be absurd for Russia to decide against a “misalliance” with the United States in favor of a similar “unequal marriage” with China. So, what should Russia do?

It should first recognize that what it really needs is not to seek an alliance or parity with the United States but to go beyond this paradigm and overcome the disadvantageous situation when neither an alliance nor balance is possible. This means establishing relations with major international players, which would guarantee non-use of military force for resolving interstate conflicts. Such a state is usually called “stable peace,” and the states between which stable peace has been established are usually called a “security community.” The emphasis is made precisely on guaranteed non-use of military force, so that war becomes unthinkable and relations between states are demilitarized. There may even be no alliance, but military balance definitely loses its value.

Security communities have existed for over half a century within the frameworks of NATO and the European Union (the Atlantic Security Community) and alliances among the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada (the Pacific Community), among the ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia, among Arab Gulf States, and among North American countries (the U.S., Canada and Mexico). Such communities seem to exist between Russia and several countries, for example, Belarus or Germany. So, the emergence of a security community in the Euro-Atlantic area that would involve North America and the whole of Europe, including Russia, is a major political requirement for Moscow in the west.

Creating such a community by concluding a European Security Treaty looks attractive, but it is impossible in practice. Of course, such a treaty can be signed and even ratified, but treaties do not create relations; at best, they formalize them. The history of non-aggression pacts – which were legally binding – does not inspire optimism. After all, it is not serious to say that states do not fulfill their formal commitments under many agreements – ranging from the Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter for a New Europe to the Istanbul Charter for European Security – only because those documents are of a political rather than legal nature. Surely there are more valid reasons.

In order to see how to build a security community in the Euro-Atlantic space, one should understand what the fundamental problems of security in the region are. I think there are two of them.

One is Moscow’s lasting concern about Washington’s long-term goals with regard to Russia. This concern explains its worries about NATO’s eastward enlargement and its fears of “color revolutions.” Russia is also worried about Washington’s activity in the CIS and its plans to create a U.S. missile defense system.

The second problem mirrors the first one, but on a different level. It is the concern of Central and Eastern European countries about the foreign policy of Russia which “has risen from its knees.” This concern is fueled by Moscow’s official rhetoric about “zones of privileged interests” and “the protection of Russian citizens abroad;” by the practice of shutting down gas pipelines; by threats to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad; by maneuvers near the borders of the Baltic States; and, of course, by the situation in the Caucasus.

Unless these two problems are solved, there will be no lasting peace in the Euro-Atlantic space. Moscow has correctly identified the key area – namely, Russian-Polish relations – and has since 2009 made very important steps towards historic reconciliation with Warsaw. The reconciliation inertia has not gained momentum yet to make the process irreversible. The Russian-Polish experience not only has not become a model for initiating similar processes in other areas – in particular, for normalizing relations with the Baltic States – but it has not even been fully comprehended in Poland and Russia. Nevertheless, the movement towards solving the “Russia problem” in Central and Eastern Europe has begun.

The second part of the twofold problem of pan-European security concerns relations between Moscow and Washington. Cooperation in building what the Russians usually refer to as EuroMD (European missile defense) may become the beginning of the solution of the “America problem” for Russia.


The first step was made by the Americans, which was logical. In September 2009, President Obama announced that the missile defense project in Europe would be reconfigured and that his administration was abandoning the Bush-era plans to deploy elements of a U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. By agreement with Washington, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen proposed building a joint European missile defense system with Russia. Moscow expressed interest in this initiative, and at NATO’s Lisbon summit in November 2010 President Medvedev presented a Russian proposal on a “sectoral” missile defense system in Europe.

The full details of NATO’s or Russia’s proposals have not been made public yet. Apparently, they imply coordination of missile defense systems (in the former case) and building a common system with pre-determined sectors of responsibility (in the latter case). This would be a major rapprochement of the positions, and it would be a pity if this proves to be insufficient for reaching an agreement.

Both Russia and NATO acknowledge the existence of a growing missile threat. The United States directly points to its source – Iran, whereas Russia prefers not to mention Iran at all, mainly out of political considerations. Moscow agrees, however, that the uncertainty about the situation in the Middle East increases risks emanating from that region.

There is agreement in principle among experts that cooperation on missile defense could be aimed at creating a system of defense against a class of missiles that NATO and Russia do not possess – namely, intermediate- and shorter-range missiles (500 to 5,500 kilometers), which were banned by the Soviet-U.S. Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. In recent years, Russia and the United States have invited other countries to join the treaty. This proposal is still valid.

There has long been mutual understanding between Russia and NATO of the need to unite their information-gathering and data-processing systems into a common integrated system to control missile launches. Back in 2000, Russia and the U.S. signed an agreement to establish a data exchange center, which, however, has never been implemented because of a deterioration of political relations between Moscow and Washington.

While the need to integrate the information systems – with direct data transmission to weapon systems – is not called into question, uniting the parties’ combat systems seems to be more problematic. It would be logical to assume that neither party would want to entrust its security to the other party, and the “dual-key” system can easily fail – with disastrous consequences. In other words, NATO’s button will have to be pushed by a NATO finger, and the Russian one, by a Russian finger.

Interaction between the two systems and the sharing of responsibility must meet the main task of defending Europe against missiles launched by third parties. The matter at issue is not a new division of Europe between Russia and America, but military-technical expediency of organizing protection of European countries, while fully respecting their sovereignty. The possibility to destroy one missile with two interceptors launched from different directions increases the reliability of defense. There must also be an agreement between the parties to avoid disagreement as to which party should launch interceptors and in what cases.

A comparison of the present and future capabilities of Russia and the United States in missile defense shows that the U.S. has a great lead over Russia in this field. Moscow referred to the planned U.S. missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic as the “third position area” (the first two being deployed in Alaska and California). In addition to ground-based missile defense facilities, the U.S. Armed Forces have sea-launched missile defense systems. The Russian arsenal is much more modest. It includes the Moscow ABM defense system, intended to destroy enemy missiles with nuclear-tipped interceptors, and a limited number of S-300 battalions, which have only recently started receiving S-400 systems capable of defending against medium-range missiles. On the whole, Russia does not have enough missile defense facilities to counter the U.S., but it has enough assets to start cooperation with the Americans.

Russia is only beginning a large-scale rearmament of its Armed Forces, intended, inter alia, to significantly enhance the capabilities of missile defense. Nevertheless, parity with the U.S. will not be reached even in the foreseeable future. This means that, in cooperating with the U.S. in building a EuroMD, Russia must lay emphasis not on parity and equality – as distinct from the traditional arms control – but on a full-scale and comprehensive nature of interaction. This implies that the concept, architecture and construction of a EuroMD must be absolutely transparent and open to all participants in the project, even though their contributions to it may be different at various stages. The closest analogue to such a project is the International Space Station, with its international space crews, national modules, ground control centers, and financing pattern.

Why can a EuroMD, like the International Space Station in the space exploration sphere, become a bridge from rivalry to cooperation for Russia and America? First of all, due to the project’s strategic nature. The past experience has shown that not any kind of cooperation can develop into strategic interaction. For example, the participation of Russian troops in NATO’s peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR/IFOR) did not create a critical mass for shaping new relations. While a new tissue of relations was really being created in the Balkans, the centers – the Russian General Staff and the Pentagon – viewed this interaction as something secondary. Missile defense is a different story for them.

Cooperation in this field will have a sweeping effect. It is impossible to jointly defend oneself against missile attacks from a third party, while at the same time training missiles on each other and threatening with mutual assured destruction. Interaction in missile defense will logically lead to the transformation of nuclear deterrence. A nuclear-free world is still up in the air, but nuclear relations are increasingly losing mutual hostility inherent in them. In other words, the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S. persist, but the need for mutual deterrence is gradually disappearing. This process may take a long time, but the importance is not in the time when the need to give up deterrence is realized but in the vector of movement.

Practical cooperation in identifying common threats and taking measures to neutralize them will add stability to the process of strategic transformation. As military cooperation broadens and deepens, relations between Washington and Moscow will see gradual demilitarization: the military component will be removed from them, and the parties will change their national security strategies, military doctrines, specific strategic plans, as well as the objectives set to their armed forces, places of their deployment, scenarios of exercises, personnel training programs, etc. A EuroMD will thus entail interaction in military-strategic, operational and even tactical matters.

Implementation of the EuroMD project will not necessarily make Russia and America allies, if “alliance” implies the NATO model or the U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty. Moscow will fully retain its strategic independence, while the United States will not be burdened by too close relations with such an oversized – neither junior nor equal – ally as the Russian Federation. Both parties will retain enough possibilities for establishing optimal relations with country number two in the present global hierarchy, namely China. Beijing from the very beginning should be sent a very clear message: the EuroMD project is not directed against China.


Russia’s modernization needs technological, innovation, financial, investment and other resources of developed countries. The bulk of the resources that can be really used for these purposes are concentrated in the European Union. However, it is impossible to interact with the EU, while maintaining hostility towards NATO. If tensions return to U.S.-Russian relations, little will be achieved even in contacts with Germany.

The transformation of strategic relations between Russia and America along the lines of arms control is impossible in principle. Removing the whatever remaining confrontation through Russia’s joining the North Atlantic Alliance is unlikely and somewhat undesirable. Looking for a counterweight to America by siding with its opponents has no prospects and is extremely dangerous. The most realistic way to transform U.S.-Russian relations is to build a security community in the Euro-Atlantic area, within which relations between North American and European states, including Russia, would be demilitarized. The present relations between Moscow and Berlin are an exemplary model for future relations between Russia and the United States.

Creating a security community requires building lasting confidence between Russia and the United States, on the one hand, and countries in Central and Eastern Europe, on the other. Confidence will not increase automatically, simply as the Cold War drifts into the past. It requires specific projects of close cooperation in strategic areas, similar to those of Western Europe and the Atlantic Community after the Second World War. EuroMD, approaches to which I outlined in this article, can serve as a leading transformation project in U.S.-Russian relations, which can be followed by other projects. Simultaneously, a historical reconciliation program will be launched in Eastern Europe.

Clearly, a security community in the Euro-Atlantic area will require an economic basis. This role can be played by integration in the energy sector, just like the European Coal and Steel Community served as the basis of the European Common Market and the foundation of lasting peace between Germany and France sixty years ago.

Obviously, a Euro-Atlantic security community needs a corresponding narrative, that is, an ideological and value component. For all the diversity of cultures in this area, there is much in common between them. This commonality is rooted in the very nature of European civilization, which has spread far beyond geographical Europe but which is only part of the global world. The formation of a modern model of security communities can be a major role for a “global Europe.” This model could be used in the future beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, e.g. in the Pacific. As regards Russia, it would thus achieve sustainable balance for itself in the international arena, which it needs to address the most important – domestic – matters.