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On Missile Defense

Richard Weitz

In their thoughtful article published Thursday in the International Herald Tribune, Sam Nunn, Igor Ivanov and Wolfgang Ischinger argue that missile defense cooperation among Americans, Russians and Europeans offers the greatest near-term potential for overcoming NATO-Russian divisions and creating a more inclusive security system in Europe.

These statesmen, whose wise policies helped us transition out of the Cold War, certainly warrant our respect and attention. Even so, their faith in the possibilities and potential for NATO-Russian cooperation on ballistic missile defense (B.M.D.) is misplaced.

Russia has engaged in a variety of joint missile defense projects with individual NATO members, as well as the alliance as a whole, in recent years. None of these efforts achieved sustained success. No major recent developments have occurred that would overcome the perennial impediments to greater B.M.D. cooperation.

NATO-Russian differences over missile defense became prominent during the 1980s when Ronald Reagan sought to construct a space- based missile shield over the United States. They persisted during the 1990s, despite the end of Cold War antagonisms. Most recently, the Bush administration’s plans to construct a “third site” for U.S. national missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic contributed to a serious downturn in NATO-Russia relations in decades.

Even after President Obama relocated the planned deployments closer to Iran and further away from European Russia, Moscow policymakers have continued to express unease at U.S. B.M.D. plans for Europe, while Russian analysts have characterized NATO offers of collaboration as a ruse to overcome Russian objections.

Russian representatives have at times appeared more welcoming of NATO invitations to collaborate on short-range battlefield missile defenses. During the 1990s, Russian defense companies erroneously anticipated that Western firms would buy a variety of their B.M.D. products.

Russian government officials have also shown interest in collaborating with NATO governments in establishing a pan-European missile defense architecture—providing Moscow would exercise decisive influence over its building and operation. In 2007, Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, proposed constructing such a network, but U.S. officials refused to accept his condition that Washington abandon its B.M.D. plans for Europe. The Bush administration saw any Russian B.M.D. contribution as supplementing rather than replacing U.S. and NATO initiatives.

More generally, several recurring obstacles have disrupted past Russian-NATO attempts to sustain joint B.M.D. initiatives. These impediments will likely upset current efforts as well.

First, multilateral B.M.D. initiatives are inherently difficult. NATO governments have not been able to develop an alliance-wide missile defense system, despite working on this for over a decade. The technology is very complex, the costs are very high, and B.M.D. entails challenging command-and-control issues. Participants must craft an arrangement that would permit a timely launch decision when even a few minutes’ delay could prove fatal. The diverging technical standards and operational procedures of NATO and Russian B.M.D. systems compounds this problem. Western commanders have made clear they could never rely on a B.M.D. system that required urgent Russian authorization for its use.

In addition, restrictive technology-transfer policies have delayed multinational defense projects even among NATO allies. The barriers to sharing sensitive B.M.D. technologies with Russian companies, or missile threat data with the Russian military, are considerably greater. NATO policymakers legitimately worry that some of this information might be diverted to Iran or other states.

Furthermore, Russian and NATO leaders still espouse different visions of Europe’s appropriate security architecture. In particular, Russian diplomats are trying to reduce NATO’s dominant role in European security by limiting its further growth and inducing Europeans to accept a new security treaty that would constrain NATO’s activities, including in the B.M.D. field.

Finally, it remains unclear whether many Russian policy makers genuinely share NATO threat perceptions about Iran. Russians seem less convinced than many NATO leaders that the Iranian government has decided to pursue a nuclear weapons options, or would actually use weapons it did acquire for purposes other than defense and deterrence.

Rather than once again pursue the quixotic goal of joint NATO- Russia missile defense, the parties should focus on more realistic and more useful areas, where there is both a higher degree of overlapping interest and therefore a greater prospect for mutual acceptance.

The recent conference in Kabul reminds us that keeping Afghanistan out of Taliban control is perhaps the most urgent priority, but the parties can also achieve rapid and mutually beneficial cooperation in other areas, such as countering W.M.D. terrorism and promoting the recovery of Kyrgyzstan.

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