The Duck of Minerva

Explaining Russian Opposition to European BMD

3 May 2012

Moscow is once again expressing displeasure with US and NATO missile defense plans.

Russia says it is prepared to use “destructive force pre-emptively” if the US goes ahead with controversial plans for a missile defence system based in Central Europe. 

The warning came after the Russian defence minister said talks on missile defence were nearing a dead end. 

Moscow fears that missile interceptors would be a threat to Russia’s security.
But the US and Nato say they are intended to protect against attacks from Iran or North Korea. 

“A decision to use destructive force pre-emptively will be taken if the situation worsens,” chief of the Russian defence staff Gen Nikolai Makarov said. 

Two days of talks opened on Thursday in Moscow between Russia, the US and Nato.
Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said the talks were “close to a dead end”, but Nato said it remained hopeful of reaching a deal. 

Nato Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow told the BBC that Russia’s fears of a European missile defence shield were “based on some flawed assumptions” and did not weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Vershbow is correct: US-NATO ballistic-missile defense (BMD) plans, now called (apparently) the “European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) cannot undermine Russian retaliatory capability. It cannot, without significant upgrade, take out Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), let alone sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It cannot possibly intercept a sufficient number of Russian warheads to give the United States first-strike capability.

The Russians know all this.

Indeed, Russian concerns are rooted in a number of factors, almost none of which have anything to do with the impact of even a greatly upgraded EPAA on the strategic balance.

  1. The optics of the US stationing elements of a BMD system in a former Warsaw Pact country are extremely uncomfortable for Moscow. The Russians don’t like the idea of any permanent NATO military presence in former Warsaw Pact countries, let alone one that borders Russian territory. The (erroneous) neo-conservative narrative that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) played a role in bringing down the Soviet Union also has surprising purchase in Russian policy circles.
  2. It isn’t clear how much these concerns really matter to the small cabal that runs Russian foreign policy, but they certainly have domestic resonance in the Russian Federation. Given Moscow’s continuing reliance on stoking nationalist sentiment to discredit anti-regime reform pressures and staving off challenges from the right, such domestic political considerations matter a great deal.
  3. Many in Moscow overestimate the ability of the United States to rapidly overcome technical challenges, particularly in the defense sector. The flexible character of EPAA, which is designed to match the shifting threat profile of middle-tier countries (for now, this means Iran) only reinforces their concerns of some kind of US breakout from limited to comprehensive BMD.

All three of these considerations give Moscow incentives not only to demagogue BMD, but to do whatever it can to strangle EPAA in the proverbial crib. Indeed, a number of important NATO members, not to mention some US officials, place a premium on getting some kind of cooperation from Moscow on missile defense. This state of affairs gives Moscow hope that a combination of intransigence, poison-pill proposals, and a healthy does of strum und drang will satisfy domestic-political needs, delay deployment, get them a better deal, or even cause the most ambivalent NATO members (such as the Germans) to get cold feet.