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Analysis & Opinion
10.12.10 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: A New Arms Race?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Edward Lozansky, Alexandre Strokanov

In his State of the Nation Address last week Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev warned of what might happen if cooperation between Russia and NATO on missile defense did not succeed. Using language that harked back to the good old days of the Soviet Union, he said that a new nuclear arms race might ensue, and Russia would have to respond militarily to counter NATO’s missile defense capabilities. This might be an unfortunate and awkward statement to make, particularly in light of mounting calls for budgetary austerity on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as Russia’s less than stellar economic performance and more pressing needs than a nuclear build up. But President Medvedev has a point.

The fundamental transformation of Russia’s relations with NATO and the United States from that of mutual nuclear deterrence to genuine strategic partnership and even collective defense depends on the success of their cooperation on missile defenses.

Were Russia and NATO to develop a joint missile defense system or closely integrate their separately developed missile defense systems, they would make the transition to a new level of trust, which is necessary if they are to abandon their mutual nuclear deterrence strategy.

If, to the contrary, no joint missile defense effort between Russia and NATO (and by default with the United States) were to emerge, the new defensive capabilities would only raise Cold War fears and strengthen the rationale for a continued mutual nuclear deterrence position.

But if Russia fears that its offensive nuclear capabilities could be compromised by NATO’s missile defenses, thus decreasing Russia’s deterrence against aggression, then it would be forced to build up its nuclear assets to compensate.

In that case, the West would have to build up its nuclear capabilities to offset the Russian build-up and a new nuclear arms race would ensue.

This echoes Cold War logic, which forced the United States and the Soviet Union to abandon the quest for impenetrable missile defense to ensure the viability of their nuclear deterrence, which led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972.

NATO and the United States are saying that this logic no longer applies, and that the planned missile defense capabilities would not be aimed at Russian nuclear deterrence. But the level of mutual trust is still insufficient for Russia to take such statements at face value. As Dick Cheney used to say: “Intentions might change, it’s the capabilities that matter.”

Only a joint missile defense effort where Russia is an equal partner to the West could break this vicious circle of mistrust and finally make the transition to a totally new type of relationship between Russia, NATO and the United States. Medvedev seems to have issued both a plea and a warning.

But is this likely to materialize? Will there be a genuine cooperative effort on missile defense between Russia and NATO? How would NATO respond to Medvedev’s proposal to integrate Russia’s missile defense capabilities with NATO’s and provide for a “sectoral defense” against all missile threats to Europe heading over Russian territory? Could cooperation on missile defense be that transformational for the relationship between Russia, NATO and the United States? Or is a new nuclear arms race a more feasible outcome?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Modern Russian politicians tend to be quite candid, and there is no pretty way to express an ugly truth: if they see a military threat on their doorstep, Russians will respond accordingly. This is not unique: one only needs to remember the American response to the strategic threat of Soviet missiles on Cuba in 1962. Like John Kennedy then, Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev is giving fair and direct (though possibly rude) notice of the consequences of certain choices that may be made by Washington.

The deployment of an ABM system near Russia’s borders, vaguely aimed at “rogue nations,” cannot be convincingly represented as not “really” targeting Russia. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which has prevented nuclear war so far, relies on the certainty of a full-scale retaliatory strike at any power that may strike first. ABM systems in this relationship reduce and possibly nullify the opponents’ capability to launch retaliation for a first strike, thus lowering the punishment threshold to levels that can make a first strike attractive. The strike parity on which MAD depends is eliminated by an ABM system, enhancing the first strike capability of any deployment. This is the reason for Russia’s objections to potentially hostile ABM systems on its doorstep.

Assuming that the presumed “rogue states” today are Iran and North Korea, the suggestion that an ABM system in Eastern Europe is directed at such states is not credible. An ABM to defend against an Iranian threat would be better located on Russia’s own territory (which was offered by Russia and revealingly declined by Washington) and regarding North Korea, the ABM system should be positioned in Japan or in South Korea. In fact, Japan already announced its plans to shoot down North Korean test missiles, should they threaten the island nation – therefore an East Asian ABM capability is de facto already in place.

In addition to the deployment of a European ABM system bypassing Russia, the other item that Medvedev considered conducive to an arms race would be a lack of progress on the New START treaty. Stalling on ratification of this treaty on Capitol Hill is a reality. As the year 2010 runs out, there is a lack of goodwill in U.S. Congress toward an arms control treaty with Russia. Even if ratification is somehow cajoled from Congress at the 11th hour, this structural lack of congressional goodwill will cast a shadow of suspicion over the toughest part of the treaty – its implementation.

And now diplomatic cables have emerged indicating a 2009 arrangement to defend the Baltic members of NATO against mythical “aggression” by Russia – an arrangement which was meant to be kept secret from the target country. Such arrangements and revelations are not helpful to a climate of trust and collaboration. Also, it may seem to Russia that the policies of its Western counterparts are controlled by the paranoia of a few politicians in countries that, due to their tiny size and sick economies, are not significant contributors to general progress.

It does not seem like anyone wants an arms race. Regardless of economic health, surplus output is urgently needed elsewhere. Even if the New START treaty is not ratified in 2010, an integrated Europe-wide ABM system that includes Russia would lead to a securer world and more collaborative relationships. This vision is definitely accessible to Russia’s European counterparts. The question is whether they have the political wisdom and skill to implement the vision. We think that they do.

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, DC:
The practically assured agreement between the White House and Congressional Republicans on tax legislation offers a glimpse of hope for the ratification of the START treaty by the “lame duck” Congress. Trade-off deals are still possible but, frankly, the chances for these to materialize are quickly evaporating. With only a couple of weeks left and an impressive list of items on the Senate’s agenda still pending, it looks more and more likely that we should not expect the vote on START this year.

This is certainly a great disappointment to all those who believe this treaty to be essential not only for the United States and Russia’s security but, perhaps even more importantly, for the positive development of Barack Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia. Will this setback lead to a new arms race as predicted by Medvedev and Vladimir Putin? I do not think so, as neither America nor Russia can afford it. Such a development is simply out of the question if the two countries’ policies are to remain on a sane level.

The U.S. national debt is quickly approaching the mind-boggling figure of $14 trillion. Some states, like California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York, are already in deep crisis. The situation is so serious that it may result in these states going into financial default, followed by a chain reaction in other states. "It seems to me that crying wolf is probably a good thing to do at this point," said Felix Rohatyn, the man who helped to save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s. Everyone is now talking about cutting the spending, so wouldn’t a decrease of the nuclear arsenal be a logical thing to do? We’ve seen at least one such development toward greater austerity: according to news reports, America pledged just ?200 million euro over ten years for the European ballistic missile defense system. Not a very impressive amount, by any count.

For Russia, whose economy and finances are fragile to say the least, the strain and challenges of an arms race could be fatal. Then there is this ironic twist to the whole situation: Russia might only cope with these challenges in what is known as mobilization mode, the sort of thing at which the communists excelled. That mode would mean suitable changes in the political setup in one definite direction – away from democracy. Is that what the American torch-bearers of democracy would care to see? Is that why the Republicans in Congress are prepared to vote against START, along with the communists in Russia’s Duma?

Now, it is not very often that arms control treaties enjoy such wide support as START. The list of its advocates reads like Who's Who in America, in Europe, and for that matter throughout the world. Republicans and Democrats, the Pentagon and NATO top brass, conservatives, liberals and even some Neo-cons – left and right, all of them have made a strong case for ratification, insisting that this treaty is in the best interest of the United States. Even the leadership of countries that are hardly on the list of Russia lovers – Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania – also want this treaty to be ratified.

Unfortunately, history offers numerous examples of politicians making the wrong decisions that have led to global disasters. So the danger of falling into the vicious circle of an arms race cannot be ruled out, but need it become a reality?

Iran is cited as the most likely nuclear aggressor, and its missiles might come to Europe via Russian territory, hence the official and most often cited reason for U.S. ABMs in Europe. So, do we expect Russia to look with equanimity, without raising a finger, at nuclear missiles fired in its direction? Doesn’t the quite obvious strategy for countering Iran’s future nuclear threat lie in joining the ABM capabilities of Russia, Europe and America on the basis of nuclear partnership? That would merely add a military dimension to the naturally developing financial, economic, trade, and cultural Euro-Atlantic unity of which Russia is an integral part.

Finally, I cannot resist mentioning Poland again. This country now has a rare historical opportunity to play an important role in the Euro-Atlantic process. Poland can lead the way for uniting Russia with Old and New Europe, thus gaining not only international prestige, but also reaping unprecedented economic and security benefits.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

Twenty years ago, then an enthusiastic member of the pro-reform “Democratic Russia” movement, I attended an all-European congress of young political activists that was called something like “Our Common European Home from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” which took place in Vienna, Austria. Upon arrival, every participant of the congress received a package that among some programs of events, brochures and papers also contained several condoms. It was quite an interesting beginning to my education about “our common European home.”

However, in all the events and open discussions that I participated in, we were talking about how idiotic the Cold War was, how older generations deprived us, young people, of knowing each other and cooperating with other Europeans. We discussed how great our continent would be without NATO and the Warsaw Pact, without new dividing lines and looking at each other as enemies. Today many of those participants are experienced politicians, professors and businessmen. It is quite intriguing to me, who they now blame, what they still remember about our congress and other similar events. Do they remember our dreams, plans, words, or maybe they prefer to remember their use of other items from the participant’s package? It is hard to say, but I honestly feel betrayed by those of my colleagues who enthusiastically spoke about a “common home” in 1990 and did everything to prevent such a dream from coming true in subsequent years.

It seems that today we are getting another chance to bring both parts of Europe together in matters of our common security. And not just shifting the Iron Curtain further east (that is what really happened in the last 20 years, when NATO expanded eastward), but doing something together that will serve as a mutually appreciated bond and empowered capability to keep long lasting peace. Europe has another chance to develop itself into a continent without unnecessary dividing lines and walls that pointlessly separate people, with armed forces directed against each other. It has a chance to really make people’s lives better from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev was absolutely right when he warned that if cooperation between Russia and NATO on missile defense did not succeed, a new nuclear arms race might ensue and Russia would have to respond militarily to counter NATO’s missile defense capabilities. I think it was an open and timely statement, which was made sincerely.

Nobody is talking about a Cold War-style arms race. History does not repeat itself, and none of the sides involved has the financial capability to do something on that scale. However, the logic, actually well presented by Frolov, is going to work. Russia will respond to the unilateral actions of NATO and the military bloc will try to match those actions while pointing at a renewed threat from Russia and the spiral movement will began. This is absolutely the last thing that any side involved (the United States, the EU, Russia) needs in the context of the financial crisis and even possible state bankruptcies. Do not ignore the fact that the United States already spends more on defense today than it did in Ronald Reagan’s time, and more than the rest of the world combined, and U.S. state debt is approaching really dangerous territory.

Can this new arms race be avoided? Of course. But for that purpose the West should abandon its traditional double standards, as well as its secret diplomacy. I do not think that making parallel plans for war against Russia in the Poland-Baltic area and developing cooperation on missile defense can work. NATO, but first of all, the Europeans alone, should finally make the choice: do they really want to cooperate with Russia, or is the existence of NATO actually pursuing only one goal – to use Russia as a common threat, justifying the existence of the alliance and endlessly pumping taxation money into its military industrial complex. This is the moment of truth and the choice must be made.

President Barack Obama just two years ago promised us a change. Now it is the time to prove that he was speaking honestly and really meant it. It is also time for other European leaders who still were young in the early 1990s, and who, I am sure, looked critically on those who led their countries in previous decades and made their own pledges of change, promising to make foreign policy more open, transparent, and not based on double standards or secret agreements, to live up to their promises.

In the near future we will probably hear that we will have to wait another 20 years for that. I hope not, but the last 20 years have taught me to be more realistic.
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