Skip to main content

Eurasian Implications of the New U.S. Missile Defense Strategy

Richard Weitz

On September 17, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would defer plans to deploy ten long-range missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced battle management radar in the Czech Republic. Instead, the administration would seek to deploy shorter-range interceptors and radars closer to Iran. One reason for the decision is to strengthen U.S. security ties with certain Eurasian governments. While officials in Turkey, Georgia, and Russia have generally welcomed the U.S. announcement, the new deployment strategy raises some new Eurasian security questions.

BACKGROUND: During the past few years, NATO countries have engaged in three separate but related multilateral European ballistic missile defense (BMD) initiatives. First, in March 2005, NATO decided to develop a system to protect NATO military forces and installations deployed on military operations from short- and medium-range ballistic missile attacks. Second, the NATO governments are assessing what kind of BMD architecture might best protect the national territories and population centers of NATO’s European members from ballistic missiles. Third, the United States has been pursuing bilateral initiatives with certain NATO members—until recently Poland and the Czech Republic—to deploy forward elements of its national missile defense system in Europe to counter an emerging missile threat from Iran. American officials have sought to demonstrate how these deployments could also contribute to defending other NATO countries from such attacks, but the other NATO governments have not actively participated in these bilateral negotiations.

A problem arose in that, due to the anticipated capabilities of the planned systems as well as time and distance factors, the BMD assets envisaged for Poland and the Czech Republic might not have been able to identify, track, and intercept sufficiently rapidly a ballistic missile launched by Iran directed at neighboring NATO allies and partners. Representatives of several of these governments have called on NATO members to help protect them from missile threats. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also stressed the need for the allies to develop closer linkages among various NATO BMD initiatives to create a comprehensive BMD architecture that would avoid potential security inequities among members. On March 19, 2008, he reassured a group of reporters from Turkey that, “We have no A league or B league in NATO. Every NATO ally is entitled to the same kind of protection.”

In line with De Hoop Scheffer’s concerns, the June 2007 NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting in Brussels authorized a comprehensive study designed to assess how to integrate the U.S. and NATO BMD initiatives. The study explicitly aimed to develop options for possible short-range BMD systems to protect alliance members located in southeastern Europe. De Hoop Scheffer referred to this as a possible “bolt-on” to the U.S. deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic. NATO governments and defense experts raised a number of political as well as technical questions regarding the proposed “bolt-on” system, requiring further research before the allies commit to its procurement. Money was a major problem. Sharing the financial costs of NATO programs that appear to provide most unequal benefits to member governments has always proved difficult within the alliance. In the case of the bolt-on system, several European officials located far from Iran have resisted paying to develop, deploy, and operate an expensive BMD system that would protect only NATO’s members and partners near Iran. In addition, some NATO governments lobbied to defer a commitment to deploy an alliance-sponsored collective BMD system until the next U.S. administration’s BMD plans became clear.

IMPLICATIONS: The Obama administration’s decision to deploy U.S. missile defenses initially closer to Iran will help resolve the “bolt-on” problem by bringing U.S. allies in the region more directly under the U.S. missile shield. Yet, one issue requiring further action will be integrating the U.S. BMD systems that will now be deployed near Iran with the plans of the Turkish government to enhance Turkey’s own missile defenses. On September 18, the Turkish government announced it would spend approximately $1 billion to establish a national missile defense system. The Obama administration had previously notified Congress of a possible multi-billion dollar sale of U.S. Patriot missile systems to Turkey.

Although Turkish officials publicly deny that concerns about a threat from Iran motivated their interest in missile defenses, Tehran’s expanding missile capabilities have evoked unease among many Turkish strategists. Continuing distrust of U.S. and NATO security guarantees to Turkey will likely still lead Ankara to develop its own missile notwithstanding the U.S. decision to deploy American BMD systems in Turkey’s vicinity. Yet, some degree of operational integration between the U.S. and Turkish systems will be necessary to prevent their disruptive simultaneous employment against the same targets.

Furthermore, as discussed in previous issues of the CACI Analyst, the BMD deployments intended for Poland and the Czech Republic have aroused sharp opposition from Moscow despite their minimal threat to Russian security. Although Obama and other U.S. officials have insisted that concerns about Russia did not affect their decision, the administration clearly hopes that suspending the Polish and Czech deployments indefinitely will improve Russian-American relations. In particular, they hope that Moscow will provide greater support for international efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear and missile development programs.

In addition, by suspending the Polish and Czech deployments, the Obama administration can now more effectively negotiate with Moscow about pursuing past Russian offers to collaborate in constructing a pan-European missile defense architecture. In recent months, Russian officials reaffirmed proposals made by then President Vladimir Putin two years ago to share data with Washington from the Russian-operated early warning radars located at Gabala in Azerbaijan and Krasnodar Territory in southern Russia. Putin conditioned such collaboration on Washington’s freezing its planned Czech and Polish deployments. U.S. officials are assessing how the Gabala facility might support the new U.S. BMD strategy for Eurasia. In addition, some U.S. and Azerbaijani strategists see the Gabala option as a means of deepening security ties between their two countries. Yet, policy makers in Baku do not wish to antagonize Tehran by joining an overtly anti-Iranian defense program. Some analysts also fear that Moscow is trying to exacerbate tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran in order to strengthen Russia’s leverage with both states, especially with regard to the Caspian Sea, whose delineation remains contested.

Although Russian officials have welcomed the U.S. BMD announcement, thus far they have not offered any major reciprocal concessions. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russian officials would now “be more attentive to” U.S. security concerns, but he insisted that Moscow would not engage in “primitive compromises or exchanges.” Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, warned Russians against becoming “overwhelmed with some kind of childish euphoria” following Obama’s announcement. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that he wanted to see if “this very right and brave decision will be followed by others,” implying that, when it comes to pressing the fabled “reset button,” Russian leaders expect most of the resetting to occur in Washington.

In addition to not wishing to alienate Iran, one reason for Russia’s cautious approach has been the concern that the United States will place some of its BMD assets in Georgia. In a September 17 briefing, General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the United States would want to deploy an early-warning radar in the Caucasus to allow for rapid detection of any Iranian missile launch. Although the Gabala radar in Azerbaijan could serve this purpose, U.S. policy makers have always worried that Moscow would seek to constrain American access to any joint BMD faciliy, a problem that would not arise in the case of an exclusively U.S.-controlled radar. Since Armenia’s military ties with Moscow probably exclude its hosting an American military facility, Georgia becomes a logical site for such a base. Georgian commentators have welcomed the idea as a means of helping restore U.S.-Georgian security ties damaged by last year’s war with Russia, while Russian analysts have warned that any U.S. radar in Georgia could allow Georgia to enhance its defenses against Russian missile attacks.

CONCLUSIONS: The administration’s new BMD deployment plan generates new strategic options, but it is not without risks. Whereas West European governments generally welcomed the decision for removing a source of tension with Russia, Central and East European leaders have expressed alarm that the Obama administration was sending the message to Russia that Washington accepts Moscow’s special primacy in neighboring countries. The situation in the Caucasus is even more complex. The new approach could strengthen U.S. security ties with Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, but Russian policy makers could raise new objections to Washington’s BMD plans in Eurasia precisely in order to avert such a development.

Related Articles

Bush, Obama & Trump: The Evolution of the United States’ Counter-Terrorism Policy Post 9/11

Douglas J. Feith

On September 12th, Douglas Feith participated in an event held by the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center's International Institute for Counter-Terroris...

Watch Now

Does Trump Want a Nuclear Japan?

Walter Russell Mead

Walter Russell Mead on the North Korean Crisis...

Continue Reading