11/11/2008 - 14:04

Barack Obama's missile defense challenge

Pavel Podvig

Pavel Podvig

A physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Podvig works on the Russian nuclear arsenal, US-Russian relations, and nonproliferation. In 1995, he headed the Russian...

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What a difference eight years makes. Following the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a new disarmament initiative that called for reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,500 warheads apiece. Although that statement was basically ignored--at the time, Washington was embroiled in the recount saga--Putin's proposal remained the official Russian position on disarmament in subsequent years.

Fast-forward to this recent president election. Instead of calling for reductions in nuclear weapons in the aftermath of Barack Obama's victory, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to move short-range ballistic missiles to the Kaliningrad region if Obama proceeds with installing missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Thus, he quickly presented Obama with his first major foreign policy test--how to handle the issue of missile defense in Europe, the biggest irritant in U.S.-Russian relations. He also seemed determined to demonstrate that Russia is going to be a difficult and capricious partner for the new U.S. administration.

Instead of arguing about the terms and conditions of missile defense deployment, Washington should accept Moscow’s standing offer to use its early warning radars in Armavir and Gabala to build elements of a joint monitoring system."

So far, the Obama team has shown great care in dealing with the thorny issue of missile defense in Europe. During the campaign, they deliberately avoided making any critical statements on the European system to avoid alienating Polish voters in battleground states such as Pennsylvania. And now that the election is over, we're hearing that they're telling the eager Polish government that their general position on missile defense--it should be deployed only "when the technology is proved to be workable"--applies to the European part of the system as well. This isn't good news for missile defense in Europe, since its technology is "workable" only in a narrow sense, if at all.

Of course, this story is far from over. If the Obama administration decides not to deploy interceptors and radar in Europe, it opens itself to a charge of yielding to Russian pressure--especially from Republicans, for whom missile defense is a signature issue. The plan to deploy missile defense in Europe also has supporters in Poland and the Czech Republic; both governments seem to believe that the presence of U.S. personnel on their soil would provide them a security guarantee far stronger than NATO membership. Finally, Russia isn't exactly interested in seeing the issue disappear: The system presents no threat whatsoever, but the controversy allows the Kremlin to score lots of rhetorical points.

Finding a solution that calms the waters and satisfies everyone won't be easy. But it's not impossible either. One thing the new administration must avoid is getting into a discussion with Russia about whether Washington has the right to deploy its military facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, or whether Russia should have the right to veto such a decision. While a legitimate discussion, we know that it's not going to get us anywhere.

Therefore, we need to take the dispute in a different direction. Instead of arguing about the terms and conditions of missile defense deployment, Washington should accept Moscow's standing offer to use its early warning radars in Armavir and Gabala to build elements of a joint monitoring system. The offer still seems to be on the table, although Russia has been far less enthusiastic about it since the United States made clear that this joint system wouldn't replace the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The problem with those sites might seem serious, but it can be solved. A year ago, Washington considered delaying the actual deployment of the interceptors until the ballistic missile threat from Iran (or maybe some other country) becomes evident. Moscow seemed interested, but the United States withdrew the offer. It certainly could be revived now. And I believe such a compromise would satisfy missile defense supporters and skeptics alike and also buy the necessary time to make the issue less sensitive politically. History shows us that once controversy dissipates, legitimate questions can be asked about effectiveness and cost--and on these counts, the current U.S. plan for missile defense in Europe fails in any sober, independent assessment.

What would remain then is a joint U.S.-Russian project in which both countries would work together to monitor missile tests and satellite launches. It's hard to think of a better legacy of the current missile defense dispute.