European Missile Defense: sacrificing the Russian queen for an Iranian pawn

Is Europe making a disastrous move on missile defense? Image from nowsquared.com
As a former senior Russian defense official reveals that Russian and US missile defense technologies are fully compatible, will NATO ignore the opportunity for full cooperation with Russia?

­"In the period from 2003 to 2008, we carried out several computer exercises in the format of the Russia-NATO Council in which we specifically studied aspects of compatibility of our means of early warning and interception,” Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Buzhinsky, a former senior member of the Defense Ministry's international relations department, and now a consultant at PIR Center (the Russian Center for Policy Studies).

“The conclusion was that they are compatible," he confirmed. "There are no technical problems of compatibility.”

But if the systems are "fully compatible," why all the smoke and mirrors on Washington’s part when it comes to the question of jointly developing and operating a European missile defense system? After all, if the system is really designed to defend Europe against “rogue states,” Moscow argues, it only seems logical to include Russia into the plans. 

For Buzhinsky, the issue boils down to a matter of political desire.

“There is the problem of willingness to combine [the US and Russian technologies]," the former defense official said in an interview published in Tuesday's issue of Kommersant, the Russian business daily.

"We have no confidence in them, and they have no confidence in us,” he said. “Until this shortcoming changes, it will be impossible to speak of any serious projects.”

Buzhinsky, adding that Moscow’s cooperation with NATO in building a European missile defense would enhance Russia's early missile warning resources, would also enhance security across the region.

“Such a project would make us full-scale partners, if not outright allies," he said. "It means joint guarantees of security, and that is serious. We have had no such project yet."

While relations between Moscow and Washington have shown a recent warming, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama displaying strong political affinities, the question of the US building a missile defense system on Russia’s doorstep threatens to sink the reset.

The former Cold War rivals agreed at a NATO summit in Lisbon last November to explore ways of cooperating in the European missile defence system.

Russia said anything less than full cooperation would be viewed unfavorably.

Medvedev, who participated in the landmark meeting, promoted the idea of "sectoral" defence, whereby Russia would handle missile threats coming from the southeast, for example, while NATO would be responsible for the southwest.

"There are grounds to unite our systems so that they work together, jointly solving the same task," General Nikolai Makarov, Chief of Staff of the Russian armed forces said at the Lisbon summit.

"There should be one button," said Makarov.

During his State of the Nation Address in November, the Russian President reiterated his support for joint missile defense architecture.

"I shared my views at the Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon on how a European missile defense architecture could be formed, in which Russia’s and NATO's capabilities could be combined in defending Europe from missile strikes.”

Increasingly, however, it appears that the western alliance is willing to take the chance of alienating Russia over the system, possibly even sparking some kind of arms race in the region.

IS NATO serious about cooperation with Russia?

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen laid out the 28-nation alliance's game plan in January, ahead of a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels. Tentatively speaking, it did not bode well for a Russian-NATO wedding of missile defense technologies.

"Now together with Russia we will analyze how we can cooperate," he said. "The vision of the alliance is for two independent but coordinated systems working back to back."

The concept for a European missile defense shield was originally floated by the Bush administration, which planned to base long-range missile interceptors in Poland, smack on the Russian border, together with a sophisticated radar system in the Czech Republic. 

Critics in Poland and the Czech Republic argued that neither country faced any notable threats from an Iranian missile attack, but that if the American facilities were installed, they would then fall on the radar screen as possible targets.

Although Obama shelved the Bush program upon entering office due to "updated intelligence assessment" that proved Iran’s missile capabilities were far less than feared, Russia’s appreciation was to be short-lived. Obama, whose foreign policy initiatives strangely mimic his hawkish predecessor’s, quickly announced a land- and sea-based system missile defense system for Europe.

Ever since the announcement, the so-called “reset” between Moscow and Washington has been on hold. 

In an interview with Larry King in November, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stressed that in the event a missile defense was built close to Russia’s borders, without Russia’s full cooperation in the project, Moscow would be forced to act.

“If the anti-missile system is employed in the year 2015 near our borders, they will work against our nuclear potential, our nuclear arsenal, Putin explained. “And certainly that worries us and we are obliged to take some actions in response.”

“We are talking about actions in response [to a perceived threat],” the Russian prime minister said, “not about taking the first initiative there.”

Yet there remains hope that Moscow and Washington will come to the realization that the best way to defend Europe is to get Russia and all of its military and technological potential onboard the project as well. Russia's status as an invaluable ally has been proven throughout history, and perhaps most of all during the last world war, when Russian-Soviet troops absorbed the full brunt of a Nazi blitzkrieg, eventually repulsing it all the way back to Berlin. So if Tehran is really the enemy that the United States wants us to beleive it is, would it be wise to alienate Russia at such a crucial juncture?

After all, it makes very little strategic sense to alienate a powerful ally in order to corner a perceived enemy. It’s as if NATO, in its impulsiveness to entertain every American whim, is willing to sacrifice a queen in order to take a pawn. 

Does Europe really need to participate in such a game in its own backyard, where the consequences of such a strategic mistake will land far from US territory, or would it be far more reasonable to save the Russian queen for another day?

Robert Bridge, RT