Putin’s Missile Defense Proposal and the Emerging World Order

As distributed by Tribune Media Services

The debate about missile defense, nearly 50 years old, has been reignited by the plan to deploy elements of the American missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland. Familiar Cold War arguments have reemerged as Russia challenges the necessity of the deployment and asserts that it is really designed to overcome Russian strategic forces rather than Iranian threats as the U.S. administration claims. But in addition to invective, the Kremlin has also put forward a bold initiative for creating an unprecedented NATO-Russian collaboration in resisting an Iranian nuclear missile threat.

The Cold War aspect of the debate harks back to an issue that has bedeviled strategists ever since the advent of nuclear weapons: whether it is possible to distil from the cataclysmic consequences of nuclear war a military strategy that a society can survive. During the Cold War, the dominant American strategic doctrine sought deterrence through the mutual capacity for annihilation. But as the projected casualties of the mutual assured destruction (MAD) strategy approached tens of millions, governments recoiled before the implications of what their planners had wrought. The advent of ballistic missiles in the 1960s produced pressure for a defense against the new threat. In practice, only the United States and the Soviet Union had the military capacity to develop what amounted to shooting down the equivalent of a bullet in space, and only the United States had the industrial capacity to build it on a global basis.

In the United States, the concept of missile defense had a rough passage. Proponents of the mutual assured destruction strategy rejected it as unnecessary and wasteful; advocates of arms control denied that the consequences of nuclear war should – or could – be mitigated. To their mind, making nuclear war more tolerable might also make it more likely, tempting a first strike by one side or the other in the belief that its defenses could blunt the counterblow. Arguments such as these led Congress to strangle the missile defense system that President Richard Nixon had proposed in 1969. In order to preserve its nucleus, the Nixon administration, in 1972, negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which froze existing missile defenses on both sides in parallel with an agreement that achieved the first restraints on the Soviet offensive missile buildup.

In the following decades, the international environment changed dramatically and forced a reconsideration of the earlier decisions: First, the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated for the foreseeable future the conceptual basis for the MAD doctrine; second, technical progress made missile defense a much more realistic prospect; third, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology has generated unprecedented dangers of accidental and rogue state launches. Involved as well was a moral issue. How could any president explain, after even the most limited nuclear attack, why, in possession of a plausible technology to mitigate its consequences or to avoid them altogether, he chose to leave the population unprotected?

These considerations convinced the Bush administration to withdraw from the ABM treaty in 2002 and to begin the construction of a global missile defense system aimed at overcoming limited attacks, especially from rogue states. Deployment has started in Alaska, and some existing radar stations elsewhere are being integrated into the system. The prospective deployment of a radar site in the Czech Republic and a small number of interceptors in Poland would be the first new installations outside the United States explicitly designed for missile defense.

Russia, which accepted the withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 with little, if any, controversy, has reacted in a neuralgic manner to the Polish and Czech deployment. This should not be a surprise. Moscow has always shown great interest in missile defense – indeed, the Soviet Union was a pioneer in deploying missile defenses around Moscow in the mid-1960s. In 1967, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin scornfully rejected a proposal by President Lyndon B. Johnson that both sides forego missile defense. Three years later after an American missile defense effort was under way, Moscow reversed its position – perhaps concerned that America's technological prowess might give it an edge. Ten years later, the Soviet response to the Reagan Star Wars proposal followed a similar trajectory, initial criticism followed by constructive U.S.-Soviet dialogue.

The current American-Russian dialogue, therefore, on one level repeats a traditional pattern. But its implications go well beyond strategic considerations. Implicit in President Vladimir Putin's conduct since his critical Munich speech is a deep resentment over the advance of the NATO military establishment toward Russia's frontiers in disregard of what Moscow regards as assurances that this would not happen – especially with respect to advanced military technology. The American argument that the deployment is modest and designed to deal with attacks from Iran is dismissed on the ground that an Iranian missile capability to reach the United States is probably 10 years or more away. Therefore the deployment, in Russian eyes, must by its very nature involve a deeper design aimed at Russian interests.

Moscow's tactics reflect its rhetoric. It has launched an intense diplomatic campaign to pressure NATO and the U.S. to revoke the missile defense deployment in Central Europe. It has withdrawn previous assurances that none of Russia's missiles will be aimed at NATO territory.

But there are straws in the wind that imply a more constructive attitude. Putin has made an intriguing proposal of potentially profound, long-range significance: to link Russia's existing missile tracking radar installations in Azerbaijan or those planned for Southern Russia to the American and NATO defense missile system against Iran. While the proposal is unacceptable as put forward, it contains a vision of how to implement parallel strategic interests that might set a precedent for overcoming other global challenges.

Russia and the United States face an emerging world order whose threats as well as prospects transcend what any national state, no matter how powerful, can deal with by itself. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, radical jihadism, the environment, a global economy all impose the need for cooperative approaches. At the level of the presidents and foreign ministers, this seems to be understood, and relations are friendly and characterized by serious cooperative efforts. Yet in the public dimension, something approaching Cold War attitudes is reemerging.

This trend must not be permitted to take hold. The U.S. and Russia are no longer in a competition for global leadership. The military deployments of the two sides are no longer aimed at each other because each faces greater perils than that represented by the other. Serious Americans understand that many global problems crucially affecting future stability and progress can best – perhaps only – be solved by American-Russian cooperation. By the same token, Russian leaders cannot fail to know that while their country has made a spectacular recovery, it has a long way to go and nothing to gain from a global contest with the United States.

Each side, of course, has also national interests that are not necessarily congruent. America needs to show greater sensitivity to Russian complexities. Moscow must understand that its point regarding being taken for granted has been made and that threats are not the way to achieve a sense of common purpose.

The immediate challenge is to deal with the missile defense issue. For America, the NATO alliance has been the bedrock of its move from isolation to international engagement. It therefore should not be asked to bargain away an enterprise agreed to by the Czech Republic and Poland to underline their ties to America and that U.S. leaders consider important for American security. But what America can and should do is to limit the proposed deployment to its stated objective of overcoming rogue state threats and find ways to define specific steps that separate the anti-missile deployment in Central Europe from a strategy for a hypothetical and highly implausible war against Russia.

Beyond this vestige of traditional arms control looms the prospect of a new approach to international order. Putin's initiative to link NATO and Russian warning systems could be – or could be made – an historic initiative in dealing jointly with issues that threaten all countries simultaneously. It is one of those schemes easy to disparage on technical grounds but, perhaps like Reagan's Star Wars vision, a harbinger of a future posing entirely new creative opportunities. It permits one to imagine a genuinely global approach to the specter of nuclear proliferation, which has heretofore been treated largely through national policies. And such an approach could become a forerunner for other issues of comparable dimension.

Of course, it is quite possible – perhaps even likely – that the Kremlin proposal is largely a tactical maneuver: to “expose” non-existent American designs against Russian strategic forces; to split NATO by exploring Russian proposals in the NATO-Russian Council; and to make the new proposal conditional on abandoning the planned U.S. deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic.

It would be a pity. For a successful negotiation – even a serious effort at one – would put the non-proliferation negotiations with Iran in a radically new framework and, in time, perhaps lead to a wider approach to other global challenges. The Russian proposal therefore deserves detailed exploration. How would such a system operate? How would the proposed system respond to its own warnings? How will other nations with comparable interests be brought into it?

If these questions can be answered positively – if, in other words, the countries involved link their strategies on the non-proliferation issue – a new framework for a host of other issues will come about. A debate started over the most destructive weapons will have culminated in sketching a road toward a more peaceful world.

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