Missile Defence From Memory

Text of report by Russian Gazeta.ru news website, often critical of the government, on 24 November

[Article by Fedor Lukyanov, under the rubric "Authors: Elections 2011/2012": "Missile Defence From Memory"]

Dmitriy Medvedev, the leader of the United Russia election list, made the public happy with his tough and decisive position on the problem of missile defence. The choice of the moment was simplest to explain specifically by the election situation – a show of muscles in the international arena is traditionally considered a winning move. However, leaving aside this altogether likely motivation, we should all the same pay attention to the more fundamental reasons that exist, even if this time they are not the ones that are determining.

Medvedev made his high profile statements exactly a year after Russia and NATO made the decision to start a dialogue on joint European PRO [missile defence] at the summit meeting in Lisbon.

From the very start, experts were harbouring doubts regarding the very possibility in principle of reaching agreement on this score, but the consultations really did begin and occurred on a fairly intense schedule until the end of the spring. NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen summarized the result in June: the Russian proposals on dividing up zones of responsibility and linking systems are unacceptable since the Alliance does not delegate ensuring its own security to outside partners. Strictly speaking, the meaningful discussed ended there.

After that sporadic attempts were made to find not a military-technological but a political-diplomatic solution. Russia was insisting on legal guarantees that the missile defence would not be targeted against it, and at some point did not even rule out the possibility of simply a political declaration on that score. The latter was supposed to become the substance of the proposed second visit by Barack Obama to Moscow. But neither the one nor the other occurred.

As for a legally binding document, the chances of getting that through the Senate are equal to zero: any "tying of the hands" of America meets the fierce resistance of the lawmakers, especially if it is a matter of such a beloved child of the Republicans as the missile shield.

In conditions of the acute political battle in the United States, the administration did not dare to make even a nonbinding political statement. Obama is labelled as an appeaser of the Moscow autocrats as it is.

On its part, Washington made its own proposals that for the most part amounted to raising the level of transparency of the project and expanding access of observers to its data. They did not suit the Russian side for understandable reasons: it was not a matter of a full-fledged system of verification like, for example, in the earlier disarmament treaties, but instead, of demonstration shows.

As a result by the autumn it became clear that there was nothing more to talk about, and the short meeting between Medvedev and Obama in Honolulu last week merely recorded the absence of any points of contact for good. But even so why did the Russian president decide to make this point so prominent? He could not have failed to understand, for example, that for Barack Obama, whom Moscow would prefer to see reelected for a second term, this would be an unpleasant surprise, and his opponents would play their trump cards.

The following is the rational explanation:

Russia wants to precisely and clearly establish that the problem of PRO remains, it is not going anywhere, and it cannot be circumvented or ignored. Moscow wants to avoid a situation where it is "talked to death." The discussion that did not lead to anything comes to nothing without providing any results, but the fact that it was conducted with the absence of a clear finale leaves a feeling of consent by silence. Or it can be interpreted that way.

So we should very definitively record our displeasure, making it unambiguously clear that each subsequent step will encounter resistance, and Russia’s easy capitulation should not be counted on. Especially since in a couple of months, Vladimir Putin, who back from the times of his first presidency has had an especially passionate attitude towards the topic of missile defence, will come to the Kremlin throne.

Why is Moscow being so stubborn? If considerations of prestige, deep distrust of the United States, and other (although also important) factors of a psychological character are not taken into account, it in effect boils down to an unsolvable problem. Everyone, even the most obstinate hawks on both sides of the Atlantic, understands that in present conditions the likelihood of a nuclear conflict between Russia and America is insignificantly small, if it exists at all. However, the very fact of the existence of enormous nuclear potentials built up in the years of the ideological confrontation makes it impossible to brush off the concept of "strategic stability," which was and is based on guaranteed mutual destruction.

No matter what politicians and even military may say, as long as these arsenals exist, each of us has no other enemy than the arsenal of the opposite side. And hence, violation of the principle whereby there is no possibility of delivering a first strike with impunity leads to acute destabilization. Especially since America since the Cold War times has shown itself to be a country that has the overwhelming advantage over any other country or group of countries and is ready to use armed force quite readily. And the nuclear potential serves as a reliable pledge that it will not be used (see the differences in approaches to Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and North Korea – on the other).

In other words, the question of missile defence as a hypothetical possibility to avoid revenge will appear on the agenda again and again. And the longer a serious discussion of it is put off, the more acute it will become and the more tension it will provoke. In the end, the aggressive desire of the George Bush administration to start the process of the deployment of the third site missile defence installations in Poland and Czechia without paying attention to Russia’s response made quite a considerable contribution to the atmosphere that took shape between Moscow and Washington by 2008 and in many respects spurred on the war in the Caucasus.

Of course, such a description of the situation does not take into consideration some practical nuances. Actually there is little clarity – either technological or financial – over the prospects of American missile defence even in its present "lightened" version. To what degree the plans will be realized is unclear. And the package of measures proposed by Medvedev entails either what Moscow would do regardless of the situation with missile defence or rhetorical threats. To illustrate, it is impossible to seriously imagine that Russia would withdraw from the START Treaty, whose initiator and enthusiast it in fact was and which was signed and ratified with such difficulty.

The problem, however, is not in the particulars, but in the principle that will not go away, and missile defence will have to be discussed. Nothing will happen before the spring of 2013 anyway: America is absorbed in the election campaign, and during it even approaching such complicated and delicate things is contraindicated and would only be worse. The new administration in Washington, whether it is Obama’s second coming or the victory of his Republican opponent, will formulate a great deal all over again. A considerable number of things may have changed in Russia by that time too – at this point no one knows the priorities and goals of the reincarnated Vladimir Putin. So one can say that Dmitriy Medvedev made a unique kind of reminder – not to forget to return to the topic. He will no longer be the one to return, but the point will not change because of that.

Source: Gazeta.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 24 Nov 11

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