Everyone Is Lying to You About the Missile Shield. Everyone.
Since 2006, Russia and the United States have been sparring diplomatically over NATO’s plan to deploy radar and missile interceptors to Europe.
The U.S. and NATO claim that the European “Missile Shield” is designed to be able to shoot down nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles emanating from Iran or North Korea. Russia claims it is a NATO attempt to undermine Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence. Turkey claims neither is true.
All are at least part-lying, and they know it. Here’s why.
First, NATO’s initial plan was to base 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. This was a curious location to defend NATO countries from the Middle East – not directly mid-range between Europe and Iran, but rather in northeastern Europe on the border with Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad and Russian client state, Belarus. Poland was primarily chosen because it was among the most enthusiastic and the eastern-most of NATO’s newest member states.
The Polish government insisted that hosting the Missile Shield was essential to its security, although you’ll be forgiven if you can’t recall what Middle Eastern countries have a major beef with the Poles or why Kim Jong-il was preoccupied with nuking Krakow. Instead, in selling the Missile Shield to its own citizens, Polish leaders nearly always mentioned Russia as the true threat. Speaking to residents of the towns of Słupsk and Redzików where the interceptors would be based in 2008, Polish President Donald Tusk said, “In the past, when Russia threatened to turn its missiles against us, nobody took it seriously. But now, after what happened in Georgia, these words have become much more serious.”
Needless to say, Russia was not amused. It didn’t help that Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain held as part of his campaign stance on missile defense that the Shield was necessary to, “hedge against potential threats from possible strategic competitors like Russia and China.” After Barack Obama was elected president in the U.S., the new administration moved the planned Missile Shield south, modifying it to initially rely on ship-based interceptors deployed to the Black Sea area and eventually include interceptors based in Romania and radar in Turkey. Meanwhile, they invited Russia to participate in the project.
Russia said it would participate in the Missile Shield on one of two conditions: 1.) It be made a full partner in the system, with joint control over its operation. 2.) NATO sign legal guarantees stating that the Missile Shield would never be used against Russia.
Thus far, NATO has refused Russia on both counts, implying at the very least that they want to be left to use the Missile Shield as they please, including against a potential Russian strike. In short, NATO’s sheepish assurances that it now views Russia as a partner in world peace and not a threat come off as disingenuous at best.
But Russia is full of it too.
The first stage of the Obama administration’s national missile defense (NMD) strategy involves deploying the sea-based Aegis weapons system in the Black Sea as well as integrating the missile defense networks of NATO states. None of this is particularly new. The Aegis system, which can guide and track dozens of missiles at once, is already deployed on about 100 American ships all of which can access and be deployed to the Black Sea due to the U.S.’s treaties with Turkey and Georgia. As for the land-based missile interceptors, well, Russia has little to fear there either.
So far, there are no indications that the deal approved by Bucharest in December to build a missile interceptor site in Romania will involve more than the 10 active interceptors that would have been located in Poland. The SM-3 missile interceptors that will be eventually be deployed have so far failed to ever intercept a ballistic missile that has counter-measures or evasive-maneuvering capabilities in tests. Not only do modern Russian ballistic missiles have both counter-measures and the capability of evading interceptors, but Russia has 2,200 active missiles in its arsenal, plus an undisclosed number of short-range tactical nukes. Each ballistic missile contains enough warheads to potentially strike several targets each.
Therefore, even if the European Missile Shield had an outside chance of intercepting a Russian missile strike – which it currently does not – heck, even if the interceptors went 10 for 10, there would still be enough nuclear warheads in the air to obliterate every city and military target in NATO.
Russia has responded to the breakdown in the Missile Shield talks by activating radar assets and deploying Iskander nuclear missiles to Kaliningrad, behind the Missile Shield. Militarily speaking, this move is totally irrelevant, but it has served to marginally antagonize Poland, on whose borders the short-range missiles are to be placed.
Meanwhile, as both Russia and NATO are talking tough towards each other about a defense system that has effectively no impact on their strategic balance of forces, proponents of the Missile Shield plan are now more trying to get it deployed more urgently as tensions rise with Iran. This month, the EU is even discussing the previously anathema step of embargoing Iranian oil, which would cause fuel prices to spike in Western economies already mired in recession.
Sensing a sudden lack of absurdity in the situation, NATO member Turkey jumped in to add some silliness to the debate. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in Tehran earlier this month that the Missile Shield was not a threat to Iran, and the radar NATO was paying Turkey to deploy on its territory was for some other undefined purpose.
So, to recap, Russia has objected to NATO’s intention to build a missile interceptor system that doesn’t currently work and would pose no threat to it. NATO claims it is not aimed at defending against Russia in the first place, except that’s not what NATO member Poland says, and NATO’s refusal to sign anything on the subject seems to indicate Warsaw is right. Instead, the Missile Shield is meant to defend Europe from Iran, except that’s not what NATO member Turkey says.
While Russia and Turkey here are clearly just being cheeky for their own purposes – Russia wants to keep NATO bases from getting any closer to its territory and Turkey wants to at least to pretend to have good neighborly relations with Tehran – it is NATO that I don’t fully understand in this whole farcical charade.
NATO has claimed again and again that the Missile Shield could not and would not be used against Russia, but refuses to sign any guarantees to that end. Why not? You know it doesn’t stand a chance against Russia’s nuclear arsenal anyway, and it would at least assuage some of the Kremlin’s trademark paranoia. Plus, given that NATO is intent on shutting Russia out of the decision-making portion of the system even if a compromise is reached, what is the danger of at least signing a piece of paper that says, “We won’t shoot down your missiles with this thing”?
Does NATO really think that the world would bring them to The Hague for breach of contract if Russia did really start firing nuclear missiles at its members and the alliance used the interceptors to shoot them down?
Obviously, this prolonged and absurd debate really isn’t about military capabilities, it’s about trust and the rhetoric regarding the Missile Shield has been a bellwether in Russian-American relations since the 1980’s when Reagan first unveiled his idea for the “Star Wars” program. When Bush tried to push the plan forward, Moscow drew battle lines. When Obama extended an olive branch, Russia said it wanted to get involved and was even optimistic about what a potential compromise could bring to world security.
Speaking to Russian newspaper Izvestiya in January 2011, then -Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin said collaborating on such a program could usher in a new era in NATO-Russian relations.
“We want to marry Russia’s and NATO’s interests in Europe,” he said. “In other words, to create such a situation when an armed conflict between East and West on our continent would be impossible.”
One year later, we’re back to nonsense-land.
The frustrating part is that I think the usually americanophobic Rogozin was correct in his buoyant remarks last year. If the Kremlin and Pentagon could set aside their egos and sabers for a second and realize that the world would be much safer if they were to integrate a worldwide missile defense system aimed at making sure no one gets nuked, they could set the stage for prolonged stability and eventually total worldwide nuclear disarmament.
But in the end, the decision-makers in both Washington and Moscow are old Cold Warriors, and two generations spent pondering how to undermine or destroy one another has programmed their worldview as one where there is a constant existential threat with his finger on the trigger. This mentality is ultimately self-prophetic, and as long as the two sides continue to peer at one another from their own ramparts they will also appear to be each other’s enemy, and every incremental change in the military landscape will be talked about like it is the next big thing to destabilize the relationship.
It’s not. The problem is that it’s still the same people doing all the talking.
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