We saw this one coming. Well, some of us did. The incredibly popular President Barack Obama of the United States of America didn’t go nearly far enough last month in offloading our missile defense plans.
Russia has been informing us of that in no uncertain terms. Obama’s offense is having decided to continue down this confrontational missile defense path, but by other means. Instead of ground-based interceptor missiles, he proposes to defend Europe (and perhaps eventually North America, although that’s somewhat fuzzy) against Iranian missiles using Aegis warships, and maybe some tactical ground-based systems (e.g., Patriot). It’s cheap, it’s ready now, it’s not in Poland or the Czech Republic — what’s not to love?
But the Russians aren’t welfare mothers in Chicago, overcome by the charisma. They do their homework. And they immediately detected the flaw in this plan. Obama can’t fool them: it’s obvious to the meanest intelligence that if we deploy Aegis warships for missile defense, anywhere around Europe, the North Atlantic, or the Arctic, we could defend Europe and/or North America against missiles launched from Russia.
The Reuters report summarizes it nicely:
Russia remains suspicious about Washington’s new anti-missile plans and fears its strategic nuclear weapons could still be threatened by the reconfigured scheme, the country’s envoy to NATO said on Tuesday.
As Russia’s NATO envoy Dmitri Rogozin asks:
“Where are the guarantees that this mobile thing, be it a boat, a cruiser, or a battleship with a mounted missile-defense system and with missile interceptors, will not sail into our northern seas?”
Where, indeed? The telling passage of the Reuters piece follows:
Russia opposed the original U.S. plans because it did not believe assurances from Washington that they were directed at future missile launches from countries like Iran. It feared the scheme would target its own arsenal, upsetting the strategic nuclear weapons balance in Europe.
“The strategic nuclear weapons balance in Europe.” See, there they go again, still living in the Cold War.
This is a point Americans need to understand. The Russians still predicate their concept of national power on being able to hold Europe and the US at risk with long-range ballistic missiles. They will never cease objecting to American missile defense plans, because all of the ones we would reasonably come up with might, in fact, be used to defend us and our allies against Russia’s missiles, as well as against anyone else’s.
Very few Americans are aware today that we officially renounced the concept of security based on a “nuclear weapons balance” — the premise of “MAD” during the Cold War — in George W. Bush’s first year in office. The 9/11 attacks preempted this whole issue in our national consciousness.
But a memory jog may call to mind the fact that Bush abrogated the old ABM Treaty, by which we had agreed not to develop defenses against ICBMs and SLBMs (the submarine-launched versions). He did this by the treaty’s terms, which allowed abrogation by one party on notification; and his purpose was, precisely, to repudiate the concept of security through mutual assured destruction. Doing so left the US free both to develop and deploy missile defenses, and to minimize the significance of a “balance,” among nuclear arsenals, to our decisions about our own. By abrogating the ABM Treaty, we specifically withdrew acknowledgment of a Russian “right” to hold us and our allies at risk, as a guarantee of Russia’s security against us. By the same token, we no longer asked Russia to acknowledge an American “right” to hold Russia at risk.
Bush outlined the posture underlying this policy as early as a 1 May 2001 speech at the National Defense University. He enshrined this major shift in national policy in the Treaty of Moscow, signed with Russia in May 2002. The treaty, also known as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), was intended as a follow-on to the stalled START II negotiations, which sought to bring US and Russian arsenals down significantly below even the START I levels. Although the parties agreed in principle on nuclear arms reductions, a key point remained unresolved, as affirmed through diplomatic exceptions: the US asserted the national right to build and deploy a missile defense, while Russia was in disagreement with that posture.
Russia has consistently, since 1983, expressed her position as follows: if the US resists being held at risk by Moscow’s strategic missile force, we are seeking a destabilizing advantage over Russia, and imperiling her security. Russia never accepted the shift in US policy announced by Bush, and continues to operate on the assumption that missile defenses are destabilizing. Stability, in a Russian view that has been expressed absolutely without variation for more than two decades, depends on Russia being able to hold the US and other nations at risk with her nuclear arsenal.
Obama made a huge de facto concession to this view with his announcement that we would scrap the East European missile defense sites. The Russians are now pointing out that any missile defense that could intercept Russian missiles violates Russia’s view of her security requirements. The argument is more difficult in the US now, because there are dozens of geographic permutations for a mobile missile defense against Iranian missiles, and it becomes absurd to earnestly argue — as many well-intentioned but shortsighted pundits did about the East European missile defense sites — that none of them could be interpreted as a defense against Russian missiles.
The fact is, if we deploy a system that can defend us and our allies against missiles from Iran, it will be able to intercept missiles coming from Russia. Even if we never once put Aegis warships (or improved sea-based follow-ons) in the waters of the Arctic, where they would have to be stationed to intercept ICBMs aimed at us over the North Pole — we could. Russia won’t simply take our word for it that we aren’t going to.
I’m not counting on Obama to get this dialogue with Russia on a better footing, and inform Russia that her objections do not constitute a veto over our missile defense plans. Bush started down the right track, but wanted to avoid a pitched confrontation with Russia over this issue. His administration thus never acknowledged what is true: that interceptors in Poland could have taken out Russian missiles launched on certain vectors, particularly missiles launched at Europe. Of course they could have. Well-meaning media commentators had to use a set of static, narrow, and easily-breached assumptions to insist that the Polish site was out of position to intercept Russian missiles — and it would have been far better for us to spare ourselves the trouble, and acknowledge that we and Russia differ on this issue.
The question remains, and Russia knows her answer to it. Should Moscow be able to hold us and our allies at risk with nuclear weapons, as the primary means of retaining a basis of national power and guaranteeing her security? This question, however simple it is for Russia, has been a tough one for us. Obama is acting as if we have agreed on one particular answer. Is he right?