This week’s meeting of the NATO-Russia Council draws a line under an interesting and revealing discussion on joint missile defense that has been running for six months, since the council’s Lisbon summit. After several months of vague comments, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen finally made a concrete statement in an interview with Interfax news agency, describing talk of a combined NATO-Russian missile defense system as unviable.
“NATO cannot outsource to non-members collective defense obligations which bind its members,” Rasmussen said. “And NATO’s territorial missile defense system will be part of such a collective defense framework. We assume that Russia is not ready to cede its sovereignty either.”
His last remark is particularly noteworthy. Many experts have pointed out that President Dmitry Medvedev’s almost sensational proposals for a “territorial missile defense” implied a possibility of discussing the hitherto immutable principle of Russia’s strategic self-sufficiency. In other words, the president proposed something no previous Kremlin administration had ever dared consider, not even during the romantic pro-Western period of the early 1990s.
Serious difficulties would have been inevitable had the discussion continued. The idea of sharing strategic defenses with the bloc that most Russians still perceive as a threat was bound to encounter resistance. The president, if he were serious, would have had to go all-out to persuade the political elites and the general public. But he never got the chance because NATO passed its verdict on Russia as not being ready to cede its sovereignty. Incidentally, that is not something the alliance is willing to do.
Rasmussen sweetened the pill by promising to work on two separate interactive missile defense systems: “NATO’s vision is of two separate but linked systems which share information and provide each side with a clearer picture and better warning of possible threats.”
This is not a new idea. It has been voiced in different variants since the early 2000s but not implemented. This is no surprise – if Russia and NATO (to be more precise, Russia and the United States, because its European allies do not play any independent role in this context) still perceive each other as potential enemies, why should they share information? This question is often raised in Russia, and not so long ago U.S. President Barack Obama also had to answer it, when Republican congressmen were worried about planned missile defense cooperation with Russia.
To sum up, the idea of cooperation on missile defense has fallen through. It is pointless to try to continue the discussion when both Russia and the United States are immersed in their respective election campaigns.
There is no doubt that attempting to implement this idea made sense. The very fact that the issue of cooperation in such a delicate sphere of national security was raised shows that the sides are moving away from the old Cold War logic.
This is an uphill journey – both Moscow and Washington are reluctant to part with the usual picture of the world, all the more so as it is being replaced not with another coherent picture but rather some fragmented mosaic. Indicatively, the polemics of Russia’s hypothetical NATO membership unfolded in parallel with the dialogue on missile defense. It went nowhere but probably for the first time the sides involved quoted specific arguments. They didn’t simply say “this is impossible because it can never happen,” but instead explained why it is impossible. In other words, the discussion has left the rhetoric of faith and emotion behind, and entered the domain of reason.
This intensive discussion of missile defense has refuted the allegation that the West is wholly open to cooperation whereas suspicious Russia is giving it the cold shoulder. The West has more objections to showing their hand than Russia. Medvedev’s revolutionary proposal caused a burst of confusion followed by the feverish search for reasons of why it is impossible.
Needless to say, Moscow’s resounding attempt to resolve an issue that has a bearing on fundamental aspects of security was probably doomed to fail. Such things simply do not come to pass. Any agreements in this sphere require a very high level of mutual trust: something that is completely absent from Russian-U.S. relations, despite a certain improvement in the past two and a half years. Now that we understand there will be no breakthrough, we must draw the right conclusions and minimize any damage from excessive, unrealized expectations.
The missile defense issue in its current form remains bound up with the broader Euro-Atlantic context. In other words, it has not broken free from the Cold War’s powerful inertia. This discussion will take place in a new light in a couple of years’ time when everyone involved understands that Europe is no longer a strategic theater. Asia is rapidly replacing it, and missile defense will be increasingly associated with that region. This means that the Russian-U.S. dialogue will also undergo a change because Moscow and Washington play completely different roles in Asia than they do in Europe.