‘Legal guarantees not key to Russia’s AMD concerns’ – NATO Deputy Head
The issue, however, remains Moscow’s top security concern.
One of President Putin's first deeds in office was to sign an Executive Order on Russia’s foreign policy. As the US continues to pursue its plans for a global AMD system, Putin underscored that Russia would need to defend its interests until it receives cast iron security guarantees.
But NATO's Deputy Head and the former ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, tried to convince RT the Alliance is ready for co-operation.
RT: Russia is greatly concerned that NATO’s anti-missile defense system in Europe will be able to shoot down its nuclear missiles, thus upsetting the balance of power in the region. Negotiations started two years ago, in 2010. Why do you the US hasn't been able to persuade Russia to reconsider its position?
Alexander Vershbow: It is not something that is very satisfying and we want to continue to work on this dialogue with Russia. But it is a serious difference of opinion that we have to overcome. It is really about the facts, about the science, about the capabilities of the system that NATO is developing with the strong contribution from the United States. We remain convinced that there is no danger to the Russian strategic nuclear force. Not today, not ten years from now. And that the Russian analysis is based on a series of worst case assumptions and unrealistic assumptions that creates an image of a threat which really does not exist.
There is so much to be gained from co-operating. There is a threat out there that is significant today and will be growing by the end of this decade. More and more of Europe, including European Russia, will be within range of ballistic missiles, possibly equipped with nuclear weapons or chemical weapons. So, if we can co-operate, if we can link our systems, plan together, have our experts working together 24 hours a day, I think that Russia can overcome its concerns and become a real full partner of NATO on missile defense.
RT: But Russia is still doubtful and you are absolutely right when you say not now, but it is worried that may be in five, six, seven years’ time, the European anti-missile defense system will be able to shoot down Russian missiles. For example, Moscow is specifically concerned about modifications to the SM-3 [[Standard Missile]] interceptor that can travel fast enough to shoot down Russia’s missiles in ascent.
AV: A key issue, it is a very technical issue, but it is a very fundamental issue, is that the NATO system cannot fire, that’s today system and the system we might have ten years from now, until the ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] that it’s targeting has finished its powered flight – until the engine burns out. And only then it is going into ballistic trajectory. By the time it happens, if we are talking about the Russian system, it will be too far to the North. NATO might fire, but it will be chasing the tail of that missile all the way until it crashes into the Arctic Sea.
RT: What you are saying completely makes sense. And you are not the first one to answer this question. But then, here is the big question that I ask everyone and no one can really answer this question. In that case, why can't America or NATO give Russia legally binding guarantees?
AV: That is a complicated question relating in part to politics, and in part to the nature of the problem. The co-operation itself, we think, is the best guarantee. Come inside of the structure, participate in the planning, learn more about the system. We can agree to exchange information about what we are going to have not just tomorrow, but five years from now, ten years from now. There is lots of ways to increase predictability, which is really what Russia is looking for. A guarantee, as we saw with the ABM Treaty [[Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty]] – is just a piece of paper, it can be torn up and abandoned. It just took six months for President George W. Bush to abandon the ABM Treaty. So that did not serve as a barrier. But co-operation, predictability, full understanding of what the system can do, looking out five, ten years, that is what we are prepared to provide and I think a solution can be found.
Now I mentioned politics. President Obama, when he sought the ratification of the new S.T.A.R.T Treaty, made some very specific commitments to the Senate to get that treaty through. He said the US will accept no limits on its ballistic missile capabilities. And President Medvedev had to make similar deals to get it through the Duma [[the lower chamber of the Russian parliament]]. Political leaders need to understand that no one has ability to overwrite the will of their parliament.
RT: But in this case, America needs this defense system more than Russia, because it is a topic of concern for Russia. .So, if the only thing that's coming in the way of sealing the deal is the legal guarantee – why not just give it?
AV: Because of the commitments that have been made it would be rejected by our Senate. We will be in a worse situation. So I just don’t think it is the answer. I think political guarantees, transparency, predictability and the benefits that come from co-operation in which NATO will be helping Russia to protect its territory just as much as Russia would be helping NATO. I think all that leads to the kind of confidence that is both necessary and sufficient to move forward.
RT: From what we are told, this European missile defense system is really directed against the Iranian threat. And it will be fully operational in 2018. There are numerous ways right now to contain Iran: the US is building bases around it, Israel has capabilities, international sanctions are in place. It really doesn't look like in the nearest future, for the next five-six years, Iran will be representing a real threat to NATO. What is the purpose of the European anti-missile defense system if Iran is contained?
AV: There is legitimate debate that we could have maybe, if we had more time, can Iran, a regime that has a radical ideology that has pledged to wipe a country not far from its borders off the map, whether it could really be contained. But yes, the threat today is not as bad as we think it would be five, ten years ago. So we do have time to work this out.
Right now the threat is concentrated mainly in the South-Eastern part of Europe and Southern part of Russia if you look at the circles on the map. But we also have seen Iran conduct tests of new generation missiles that are even longer range that can begin to threaten Eastern Europe. By the end of the decade, they will be threatening Northern Europe. Will they actually attack? Who knows…
But having the missile defense capability would change their calculus. They would know that they could not blackmail us, they could not successfully carry out preemptive strikes. So, missile defense is ultimately a part of deterrence at the regional level. And we don’t think it affects deterrence at the strategic level.
RT: As you see, what's the future of the European missile-defense system, taking in consideration the financial problems surrounding the issue in the US?
AV: I think the system is still on course, because it is envisaged to be implemented in stages over many years. We have time to demonstrate to the skeptics that the systems are capable, that they can be produced within the budget constraints that are set by our Congress and by NATO. This is a gradual process. Phase two does not begin until 2015; that is three years from now. The next phase is three years later – 2018. So, I think we can work out arrangements with Russia that would strengthen the security of NATO and Russia together.
RT: From the Russian perspective, the whole missile defense is “make or break” deal as far as Russia-NATO relations go. President Medvedev has stated more than once that a new arms race could be in place if the two sides don’t come to the agreement. But is it really as important to NATO as it is to Russia?
AV: I would hope that at the end of the day it would be equally important to both parties because we are talking about our security, the security of our people, the security of our territory. Nothing is more important than that. At the same time we take Russia’s concerns very seriously. We have to address the concerns of our strategic stability. Then I think we can be thinking about NATO-Russia relations in a totally new way. We are still not yet free of the hostility and the suspicions of the Cold War, which is disappointing, since it has been a long time since the Berlin Wall came down and the map of Europe was changed irrevocably. But those suspicions still linger. It is our mutual obligation to try to work together to overcome.
RT: How do you think the whole thing will play out with President Putin back in office? He also has openly criticized the missile defense system as undermining trust between the two nations.
AV: I think that he is very familiar with the subject matter. This issue has been with us for a long time. He was discussing it with the previous US administration the last time he was president. So, clearly, there may be some residual suspicions and distrust going back to some of those negotiations before Obama came into office.