The debate between the US and Russia over American plans to deploy ballistic missile defences in Europe is heating up again. Persistent differences with Poland over its conditions for accepting defensive interceptor missiles have led American officials to hint that they might consider Lithuania as an alternative deployment site. This shift appears aimed at pressuring Poland into showing greater flexibility in the negotiations, but the idea of America establishing military bases in a country that was once part of the Soviet Union has brought forth the Kremlin’s ire.
In June, the chief US negotiator on the issue, John Rood, flew to Lithuania to brief its government on the status of the Polish-American negotiations. America wants to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and an advanced missile defence radar station in the Czech Republic. This week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Prague to sign an agreement with the Czechs. The Polish-American talks, however, remain stalemated, and the department of defence acknowledged that America was considering other options should the talks with Poland remain deadlocked.
The Lithuanian defence minister, Juozas Olekas, while affirming that he expected Poland and America to reach a deal, added that, “Lithuania would consider the possibility of participating in the anti-missile shield if asked. We should consider all the pluses and minuses.”
Two factors have impeded a Polish-American agreement. Polish officials want compensation in the form of US-funded military modernisation and other measures designed to ensure that Poland’s security does not suffer because of the deployments. Indeed, Russian officials have hinted at serious retaliation should Poland accept the interceptors.
For the past few months, American officials have offered proposals designed to assuage Russian security concerns about the planned ballistic missile defences (BMD). The envisaged confidence-building measures aim to increase the transparency of operations at the base to the Russian government and to limit any theoretical threat the systems might pose to Russia’s own missile arsenal.
At his April 2008 summit with President Bush in Sochi, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin praised what he uncharacteristically described as sincere American efforts to meet Russia’s security concerns. But Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently said that the Russian-US dialogue on the confidence-building measures “has stalled.”
Precise details concerning what the Americans are offering remain unclear, but Russian and US sources have revealed their basic content. America has proposed that Russian personnel could, with the host governments’ approval, conduct detailed inspections at the bases. In addition, US officials have offered not to put the systems into operation until Iran demonstrates the capacity to attack Europe with ballistic missiles. Finally, American officials have indicated they would accept limits on the scale of the BMD systems deployed in Russia’s vicinity in order to avoid threatening to overwhelm Russia’s own ballistic missile arsenal.
But translating these concepts into operational arms-control limits has proven challenging. For starters, Russia’s role in determining whether Iran is capable of threatening Europe with missile attacks, which would justify activating the missile interceptors in Poland, remains unclear. The two sides have differed for years about whether Iran presents a genuine threat to Nato’s security.
In addition, Russian officials are demanding that Russia receive a permanent presence at the BMD facilities to monitor their operations.
Czech and Polish leaders, recalling past periods of Russian and Soviet occupation, categorically reject hosting a permanent Russian presence.
What steps the US might take to overcome Russian fears about a BMD breakout in which America would rapidly increase the capacity of its missile defences around Russia remains uncertain. For example, it is unclear where any limits might apply, how long they might last, and whether they might restrict the joint BMD research and development programmes the US is conducting with foreign allies such as Australia, Israel, and Japan.
Moreover, it is unclear how these measures would be enforced. The Bush administration shuns overly-rigid arms agreements, which could constrain US flexibility in responding rapidly to emerging threats. In recent arms-control negotiations, however, Russian policymakers have rejected informal arrangements, insisting that the US negotiate formal, legally binding treaties. Not unreasonably, Russian leaders worry that a future Czech, Polish, Lithuanian, or American government might simply decide to stop enforcing any informal understandings, confronting Russia with a fait accompli.