Judging by the intensity of Russia's constant opposition to US missile defenses in Europe, one might think that the very survival of the nation is in danger. In reality, though, the opposite is true: The battle over missile defense is so fierce because the stakes are so low. In terms of an actual impact on Russia's security, US defense is largely irrelevant. The intensity of Russia's opposition to the missile defense plans owes more to its internal political circumstances than to anything else -- which is why the current controversy is so persistent despite efforts to resolve it. It is time to acknowledge this and to recognize that, as far as US-Russian relations are concerned, disagreement over missile defense is just an overblown distraction.
To be sure, missile defense is a rather significant undertaking. The United States seems to believe that missile defense will become a key element of its national security strategy and is willing to pay the substantial political and financial costs to achieve that strategy. But a significant undertaking is not the same as a successful one, and the missile defense program simply does not have much to show for its 30 years of development and more than $200 billion spent. The current phased adaptive approach is not expected to do more than "to defend against regional missile threats to US forces" in Europe -- hardly an ambitious goal for a $200 billion program. Of course, there is no shortage of projections that describe how the US system's capability will grow in the future with the deployment of better sensors and interceptors. But history gives us plenty of reasons to be skeptical about projections: No missile defense plan has ever survived an encounter with an actual missile threat -- as opposed to an imaginary one. What's more, it's not just a matter of building a more advanced system; even a capable missile defense would be entirely irrelevant if it ever comes to countering a real threat of a nuclear missile attack: While a nuclear threat needs only a small probability of success to be credible; missile defense needs absolute certainty.
It will take time, of course, for the United States to sort out its relationship with missile defense. Given America's own internal politics, the program is unlikely to ever be shut down entirely; but, in time, the United States is likely to downsize and reorient the program toward more realistic goals and toward a more reasonable size. This means that missile defense development and some deployment is likely to carry on, giving Russia plenty of reasons to continue to complain about missile defense's destabilizing nature and to threaten to take measures to counter the US deployment. These objections, however, should be put into perspective.
First, it is hard to see what if anything could make Russia stop griping about US missile defense. Russia's official line is that the United States must sign a legally binding agreement guaranteeing that US missile defense never be directed against Russian forces. Of course, it is no secret that an agreement of this kind is a political nonstarter for the United States. And, even in the improbable event an agreement were politically feasible, it is hard to imagine a set of technical limits that would make this obligation meaningful (something the United States and Russia should know from Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty demarcation negotiations in the 1990s).
However unreasonable, the "legally binding agreement" rhetoric would probably remain at the center of Russia's position, as it apparently comes from the very top of the Russian political leadership. As it turns out, missile defense is a very personal subject for the Russian president, who spoke passionately about it during his recent campaign. This passion, however, serves a very pragmatic political purpose: It paints a picture of Russia as under siege, which helps deflect challenges to the legitimacy of the Russian political system. As such, there is little incentive for the current Russian leadership to change its position on missile defense, and it is no surprise that Russia has been consistently dismissive of recent -- though admittedly limited -- attempts by the Obama administration to demonstrate that US defense does not have the capability to counter Russian missiles. Russia wants to keep the controversy alive, not to resolve it.
The row over missile defense has also given rise to a fairly large Russian industry of so-called "response measures." Every now and then, Russia warns the United States that, if no agreement on missile defense is reached, then Russia will have to resort to response measures to restore strategic balance. This is not a development that should be taken lightly, of course, but the reality is that Russia has been implementing response measures all along anyway. In fact, at this point, it's hard to see how a potential missile defense agreement would even be worth its while.
Indeed, if the response to missile defense is to increase the number of warheads on ballistic missiles, it has already been done. Russia began deployment of a multiple-warhead version of its Topol-M missile, RS-24, in 2010. And a version of its R-29 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which can carry 10 instead of four warheads, was successfully tested in 2011 and is now on its way to deployment. Meanwhile, Russia is currently at work on a new silo-based multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile, which is expected to enter service some time after 2016, along with at least one more new intercontinental ballistic missile. Each of these projects, of course, has been justified as a response to US missile defense development. But none really has anything to do with the US program; more important, none would stop were the United States to shut down its missile defense program tomorrow.
There is no easy way out of the current impasse. Dialogue and cooperation is still the best available choice. But at this point, very little progress is likely to be made on that front. So maybe those in the international community in general and the expert community in particular, who watch this gridlock in despair, should stop treating missile defense as if it were a vital national security matter -- it is not -- and look instead at the underlying issues that drive strategic modernization and prevent deep reductions of nuclear arsenals. No doubt missile defense makes moving forward more difficult. But right now, nuclear buildup and modernization -- whether in Russia, the United States, or elsewhere -- are happening regardless of missile defenses. These are the dynamics that need the most attention. Missile defense in this regard is a small, distracting, and not particularly important part of the picture.