Missile defense continues to concern the Russian leadership. Having made tough statements on this issue in Moscow last week, President Dmitry Medvedev again spoke about it in Kaliningrad. While many analysts in Russia and the West wrote off these statements as campaign rhetoric, the problem remains. Missile defense isn’t going anywhere. This is not a short-term problem that lends itself to an easy deal; it is a fundamental issue of global strategic stability, which to this day is rooted in the logic of mutual assured destruction.
It is impossible to forget about the existence of the enormous cold war nuclear stockpiles. As long as they exist, each side has no enemy but the other side’s nuclear arsenal. Under the circumstances, violating the principle that rules out a first strike will lead to rapid destabilization, especially given that the United States, since the end of the Cold War, has gained an overwhelming military advantage and has shown itself more than willing to use force.
This is why missile defense, as a possible way of avoiding a retaliatory attack, will remain on the agenda. The longer a serious discussion of this important issue is delayed, the more acute it will become and the more tension it will cause After all, the stubborn desire of the George W. Bush administration to deploy a missile defense third positioning area on Polish and Czech territory regardless of Russia’s objections largely shaped the atmosphere in Russian-U.S. relations by 2008 and, in many ways, provoked the war in the Caucasus.
Medvedev’s statements were obviously meant to further Russia’s political agenda: to make it clear that the missile defense issue isn’t going anywhere; it will be impossible to avoid or ignore it. Russia is not interested in idle talk. Talks on common European missile defense that started after the Russia-NATO summit in November last year ended without results. However, the mere fact that these fruitless talks were held may create the impression of consent by default. Therefore, the Kremlin deems it necessary to voice its objection. It wants to emphasize that each subsequent move will meet with resistance and that Russia will not capitulate. Moscow knows only too well what will happen if it does not clearly express its stance. The United States will proceed with its plan, and when its implementation starts to seriously worry Russia and Moscow starts to create a stir, Washington will simply shrug its shoulders and ask why Russia didn’t speak up before.
Needless to say, this is all still hypothetical. The prospects of the American missile defense, even in its “relaxed” version, are still unclear. Technologically the project is far from being ready, and it is not clear how it will be funded given America’s growing financial constraints.
On the other hand, the measures proposed by Medvedev consist of actions that Moscow will take regardless of the status of missile defense plans or empty threats. It is impossible to imagine that Russia will withdraw from the New START Treaty that it initiated and enthusiastically promoted and that was signed and ratified with such difficulty. Moreover, Russia has actually complied already with all the treaty’s restrictions, and now it only works to restrict the United States. It is indeed strange for Moscow to voice such threats, especially considering that it is hard to imagine a bigger present to the Republicans in the U.S. Congress.
However, we aren’t talking about details but about a fundamental principle that won’t go away. Missile defense will have to be discussed. Nothing will happen until the spring of 2013: the United States will be consumed by the election season, during which such complicated and sensitive issues should not even be approached for fear of counterproductive results. Washington’s new administration, whether Barack Obama’s if he is reelected or his Republican rival, will formulate many issues in a new way. The Republicans, for one, will obviously resurrect Bush’s ideas: Why agree with Russia on anything at all?
Much could change in Russia by then, too. Nobody knows anything about the priorities and goals of Vladimir Putin’s next presidency.
Most likely, the next round of debates on missile defense will be decisive and may cause tangible deterioration in bilateral relations. Russia (and possibly China, which is silently watching the battle for the time being but is no less concerned about the U.S. missile defense) will work hard to try and stop the United States. At the same time, it is veryhard to imagine that America will give up its missile defense – the presumed benefits of this project are deeply rooted in its political mentality. In this case, Russia will have to choose a new line of conduct again, realizing that former approaches to strategic stability will no longer work.