NATO and Russia: Vigilant in the skies, evasive on missile defense

The focus of the upcoming Russia-NATO Council meeting in Brussels will be U.S. missile defense in Europe, but the outcome is hard to predict.

Some have suggested that the meeting will result in political principles for a common approach to missile defense. Moscow is not so much worried that the U.S. is currently working on a missile defense system, as Washington knows well. Rather, it is worried about what this system could become by 2020, when a third stage of defense with new strategic interception systems will be put into operation. These systems will be able to block Russian strategic missiles.

Progress amidst deadlock

On June 8 and 9, NATO will hold a regular meeting of the defense ministers of its 28 member states in Brussels. A session of the Russia-NATO Council will be held simultaneously.

The latter meeting will be riding on a wave of good feeling: from June 6 to 10, NATO and Russian fighter pilots, air traffic controllers, air defense personnel, signal operators and commanders are holding the world’s first airborne counterterrorism exercises, Vigilant Skies 2011.

Together with their Polish, Turkish and Norwegian colleagues, Russian service members will practice tracking renegade aircraft with terrorists onboard over Poland, Russia, the Baltic states and the Black Sea basin in order to prevent a 9/11-style attacks and to keep pilots like Mathias Rust from landing on Red Square, as he did on May 28, 1987. This will be the first time that Russia and NATO integrate their air space tracking and air traffic control systems. This is a step forward, but unfortunately, this is the only one. On all other points there is a total lack of understanding between Russia and NATO.

The Russian military has made numerous proposals to the Americans on resolving the missile defense issue – from the construction of a joint system in Azerbaijan (to which Baku consented) to discussing the details of the future missile defense system, be it in Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Turkey or somewhere else (the final decision on the site is pending).

One of the recent proposals is to sign a binding treaty with clear legal guarantees to the effect that NATO will never use its system to block Russia’s nuclear missile capabilities.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov has even said that Moscow does not object to anti-ballistic missiles but that they should be subject to concrete restrictions on speed, number and location. A force consisting of 200-300 anti-ballistic missiles is very different from an in-depth defense system with a thousand missiles.

At the NATO summit in Lisbon last year, President Dmitry Medvedev suggested a “sector-based solution” for integrated European missile defense, whereby NATO would destroy missiles from the south and west and Russia would protect all of Europe’s eastern flank.

NATO has not officially responded to this proposal.

Everything depends on the United States

Clearly, such a response must come from the United States, where the idea of European missile defense originated. It was first proposed under the George W. Bush administration and later modified by the Obama administration. But so far Moscow has heard nothing but calls for Russia to trust the U.S. that its missile defense is not targeted against Russia.

When pressed, U.S. officials admit that they don’t see the need to grant Moscow legal guarantees on missile defense.

The Russian military is worried by this attitude, as this is not the traditional lexicon for discussing strategic balance.

But the problem is that missile defense is not a hot topic in the 2012 election season, which has already started in the United States. It is not in Obama’s interests to talk about missile defense, much less to offer concessions to the Russians at this time. Why give Republicans another excuse to call out Obama for abandoning Europe and American interests?

Obama and Medvedev failed to reach agreement on missile defense at the recent G8 summit in Deauville. It is not quite clear what will happen next year – maybe nothing. Radical changes are rare in election years. It is also unclear who will be discussing a possible deal, as neither Obama nor Medvedev are guaranteed to stay in office.

What if the Republican candidate wins? They have a different opinion on European missile defense, and it will be even more difficult to make a deal with a Republican administration.

Whenever Russia and the United States discuss European missile defense, the reset button malfunctions. It isn’t really working steadily in general, but it is not a totally useless “gadget”, as some powerful people refer to it. There are no grounds to claim that NATO and Russia do not cooperate, either.

We are working together to catch terrorists in the skies and starting to cooperate on Afghanistan. Yet, there is a yawning gap on the missile defense issue.

Possible outcomes

Let’s not get too dramatic, though. We are still far from addressing European missile defense and even further from dealing with the real threats to Europe from Iran and North Korea. These two countries provide the main justification for creating a missile defense shield for the Old World.

During his visit to Moscow last fall, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that it was too early to speak about a common (Russian-NATO) missile defense system and that maybe in 30-40 years we’ll see a system that we can’t even imagine.

But Russia can hardly be expected to take comfort in these words. NATO has already broken its promise not to expand to the former Soviet borders. It was strange that Russia settled for verbal guarantees on this issue but this is the fault of officials in the late 1980s.

It is rumored that Russian Envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin has received clear instructions from President Medvedev for the forthcoming meeting. It will be interesting to see what the outcome will be and what principles of political understanding may be accepted at the upcoming meeting, and whether the two sides can adhere to them. When “political principles” take the place of clear agreements, there is always much room for maneuver.

The Russia-NATO Council was formed in 2002 as a forum for political dialogue on security and related issues and a platform for cooperation, nothing more.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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