05/22/2007 - 22:00

The U.S. and Russia's "ludicrous" missile defense rhetoric

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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If Marx was right about history repeating itself as a farce the second time around, then missile
defense (now in its third or fourth incarnation) must be far beyond the farce stage. The longer the
debate goes on, the less and less reasonable it becomes. Russian generals are now threatening to
target U.S. missile defense facilities, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is comparing the
upcoming deployment of missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic to the deployment of
U.S. medium-range missiles in Europe during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the United States is making similar preposterous statements. When asked about
Russia's objections to the U.S. missile defense plan, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of
State, replied, "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going
to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it."

Most people seem to agree with Rice that a few U.S. interceptors in Eastern Europe will have a
limited impact on Russian strategic forces. (Although everyone noticed that she used the word
"Soviet" instead of "Russian.") But what is really ludicrous in Rice's words-- and in various
Russian statements--is the notion that it's normal for Russia and the United States to base their
relationship on nuclear deterrence.

It's even more unfortunate that this notion seems to be universally accepted. Most commentators
act as if the Cold War is still ongoing and that the United States and Russia must preserve the
capability to destroy each other.

This, of course, is nonsense. Even if we accept that during the Cold War the stakes were high
enough to justify an immense nuclear buildup and live with the dangers that buildup entailed, no
disagreement between the United States and Russia today would justify a nuclear exchange. The
single most powerful incentive for maintaining a "strategic deterrent" anymore is the strategic
deterrent itself--the U.S. and Russian nuclear forces are locked in a state of mutual dependence,
each providing the rationale for the other's existence.

Russia's public statements notwithstanding, U.S. interceptors in Eastern Europe will never
threaten Moscow's strategic deterrent--or anyone else's deterrent, for that matter--since the
military and political value of missile defense is essentially zero, just like that of its
predecessors. After all, history does repeat itself.

But it's wrong to imply, as Rice did, that U.S. missile defense is harmless because it does not
challenge the concept of nuclear deterrence. This is exactly the concept that should be challenged.
Instead of praising their ability to attack each other, Russia and the United States should ask
themselves why they continue to maintain their nuclear deterrents and how they can move away from
that posture.

But as we can see from the current discussion, the plans for missile defense prevent this.
Instead, missile defense locks us in confrontational mentality, imposing Cold-War schemes on the
U.S.-Russian relationship. This is what Rice should have termed "purely ludicrous."