The Duck of Minerva

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Russia and BMD: The BFD

July 11, 2008

Even the most causal observers of US-Russian relations must have realized by now that the Kremlin is apoplectic over the prospect of US ballistic missile defenses (BMD) in Eastern Europe. How has the Kremlin responded to news of the US-Czech radar deal? They’re not happy.


Russia warned after the signing on Tuesday it would react with unspecified military-technical means if the shield is deployed.

“The Czech side… voiced concerns over continued excessive rhetoric of the Russian Federation towards the Czech Republic and threats by some Russian official representatives in this sense,” the Czech defense ministry said in a statement after a visit by Russia’s defense ministry official Yevgenyi Buzhinsky.

“Some of the statements and the form of their presentation are perceived in the Czech Republic as an interference with internal political affairs,” the statement said.

Although, to his credit, President Medvedev says that Russia won’t get “hysterical” over the matter:

Russia will respond to U.S. missile shield plans in Central Europe, President Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday, pledging at the same time that Moscow would not resort to ‘hysterics’ over the issue.

“I repeat once again, we are not satisfied with it, and I have said this to my counterparts. Of course, we will not get hysterical over the issue, but we will consider what steps to take in response,” Medvedev told journalists after the G8 summit in Japan.

Medvedev also said Russia was dismayed by the Czech Republic signing on Tuesday a missile shield treaty with the U.S., but added that Russia was ready for further talks.

Whether this is more of the new Medvedev-Putin good cop-bad cop routine we’ll have to wait and see; Russia’s NATO envoy made a rather less measured statement:

Dmitry Rogozin… said the U.S.-Czech deal undermines Euro­pean security and pushes the world toward a new arms race.

“Missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Po­land are a totally destabilizing element between the East and the West. The Czech authorities have surrendered their people to nuclear slaughter in favor of the interests of military and industrial groups,” he said.

The United States insists, of course, that the BMD deployments are meant to deal with rogue states, like Iran. The Russian’s don’t see it that way:

Russia, for example, sees the installations in Eastern Europe as containment aimed at them, not Iran..

It isn’t hard to understand why the Russian’s think this way. Just look at the maximum-ranged missile among those Iran has been (selectively) showing off lately:

A reasonable person might point out that the US cares about future threats; Iranian missile technology is unlikely to stand still.

But consider the Russian perspective. Their nuclear arsenal is in terrible shape. Their ballistic missile subs (the most survival platform for second-strike retaliation) barely ever leave port. While Putin has made plenty of noise about modernizing and repairing Russia’s nuclear deterrent–a development that the Pentagon has flogged a bit lately–there’s also significant evidence that this won’t amount to much for quite some time.

In other words, the US is expanding its BMD program–and seeking to place BMD installations in Europe–during a period in which it has significant advantages in nuclear weapons and reliable delivery capability. It isn’t hard to understand why the Kremlin might see the BMD proposals as amounting to a bid for first-strike dominance: even a limited BMD might be able to seriously undermine the deterrent value of a Russian second strike.

To get a taste of what a big deal this all is in Russia, one only need to peruse Russian news sources. Consider this report in RIA Novosti: “U.S. may secretly deploy ballistic missiles in Poland – expert“.

The U.S. may station intermediary and shorter-range ballistic missiles in Poland under the guise of interceptors, a Russian expert said Thursday.

Moscow has strongly opposed the possible deployment by the United States of 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic as a threat to its security and nuclear deterrent. Washington says the defenses are needed to deter possible strikes from “rogue states.”

Alexander Pikayev, head of the disarmament and conflict resolution department at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said there is no way of verifying that the U.S. will really deploy interceptor missiles with conventional warheads.

“These missiles look very much like intermediary and shorter-range ballistic missiles,” he said.

He said that if Russian military officers were not given access to U.S. missile-defense facilities in Central Europe, Russia would be unable to verity what types of missiles were located in silos on Polish soil.

“Therefore, we should make a worst-scenario assumption that ballistic missiles with a very short target approach time will be deployed,” he said, adding it would be naive to believe that U.S. missile-defense elements will not be included in the list of Russia’s legitimate targets.

“This is inevitable, and both the Czech Republic and Poland must know it,” the expert said.

Seem absurd? Well, the Russians have a lot of reasons to distrust the United States: from the US decision–despite promises made at the end of the Cold War–to expand NATO up to the Russian border, to the Orange Revolution, to US support for Georgia, the US has done little to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings in Russia. And a lot of Russians still feel betrayed by what they consider a failure by the US to provide promised assistance in the 1990s.

But there’s also a simpler explanation. The Russians probably ask themselves what they would do if they were in America’s shoes. And you can damn well bet that, if the situation were reversed, the Russians would be seeking first-strike dominance… and working on the best way to hide them some nuclear missiles in BMD sites.

UPDATE: Does the Russian Foreign Ministry read the Duck? I doubt it, but they clearly looked at some maps:

The results of recent Iranian missile tests prove that US plans for a defence shield in Europe are unnecessary, says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

He said the tests confirmed Tehran had missiles with a limited range of up to 2,000km (1,240 miles).

And what conclusion does Lavrov draw? Not a particularly surprising one:

“We continue to be convinced of the invented nature of discussions about the Iranian rocket threat as a motive for the deployment of the missile shield in Europe,” Lavrov said after talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Salaheddin Al-Bashir.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.