A new divisive issue between Russia and NATO has come to the fore: the deployment and development of ballistic missile defenses in Europe by the United States in Central Europe.
The debate regarding missile defense is not new. It dates back to the Cold War when the United States used the Strategic Defense Initiative, colloquially known as Star Wars to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Today however ballistic defenses have returned as an issue of international politics when the United States decided to retreat from ABM treaty signed in 1972 and develop this type of strategic defense in order to protect itself from countries like Iran and North Korea – the infamous “rogue states” from the “axis of evil”.
NATO has posited the development of limited ballistic missile defenses in 1999, in its revised strategic concept, when it recognized the risk and potential threat of NBC weapons proliferation and their means of delivery to its troops and territory. It is expected that by 2010 NATO will deploy a common Theater Missile Defense in order to protect from intermediate and short range ballistic missiles. It is also expected that NATO will develop and deploy in the near future a full scale missile defense system in order to protect its population centers from unconventional attacks and to counter NBC proliferation.
According to Stratfor the logic behind US ballistic missile defenses is to push back threats to its territory as far as possible. Consequently it makes sense to deploy a network of BMD outside the US, as ballistic missiles fired from the Middle East in the general direction of the United States must pass over Europe and also because there are easy to destroy in mid-flight rather than in their terminal phase. Moreover protecting its European allies is at least as important for American policy makers, as protecting US territory itself. BMD, even if they are limited also offer great political leverage in dealing with countries that are interested in proliferating NBC weapons and their means of delivery, as they are faced with the dilemma of credibility: How credible is our threat, if they (US & its allies) have the ability not only to destroy us in case of nuclear exchange, but also to defend themselves against such attacks? This question surely has started to hunt those governments which consider NBC weapons as a way of protecting themselves against American power.
The plans for the deployment of BMD in Central Europe, namely in Poland and the Czech republic, have raised many eyebrows in Kremlin, which in the past few months has reacted quite vehemently to them. Two of its generals in charge of Russia’s strategic arsenal have made threatening statements, saying that the sites in question will be targeted by Russian strategic forces. Lately President Putin warned against the deployment of BMD by saying that it will increase the chances of mutual destruction as well as characterizing these defenses as being part of US nuclear forces. Clearly Russia is sending out the message that missile defenses based so close to her borders are considered a serious threat to her interests.
However the limited deployment envisioned by the US, a battery of ten interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, advises against such perception at this moment in time. Furthermore the system is not specifically designed to deal with Russian ICBMs. Nevertheless Russia considers this deployment as another US and NATO move aimed at encroaching on Russian interests in Central Europe, already severely weakened since the fall of the Soviet Union and by NATO’s eastward expansions in 1999 and 2004. Placing such a strategic asset on Russia’s doorstep is only another challenge from the West, Russia’s traditional enemy, which could possibly threaten the efforts made so far by Kremlin to restore its power and influence in international politics. If this new US move is correlated with other courses of action adopted by Washington towards Russian interest in the last years (American presence in Caucasus, The Rose Revolution in Georgia and the ongoing struggle over Ukraine), Russia has good reasons to be concerned. It seems that the United States is interested in the long run to see that Russia does not pose a threat to its interests and for that it is ready to employ every mean available.
Ballistic Missile Defense is likely to increase tensions between Russia and the Western alliance, as both actors have conflicting interests on this issue at stake. In all probability it will not lead to a new Cold War, as it is feared by some. However the increase in tensions will not be without consequences. In the near future the issue of ballistic missile defenses will play an important part in the relations between Russia, NATO and the United States.