Eastern European Missile Defense: Russia's Threat Assessment and Iran
Professor Stephen Blank
Strategic Studies Institute
US Army War College
The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or U.S. government.
Having pushed the reset button, the Obama administration must now operate a new program of relations with Russia whose most outstanding issue is the negotiation of a new strategic arms reduction treaty. Although all reports of this negotiation to date indicate productive sessions and progress toward a new treaty, there are issues that could cloud this progress and obstruct the administration’s overall efforts to improve U.S. ties with Russia. In particular, the Russian government has insisted that the US match any reductions in offensive weapons with an end to the program to build missile defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow charges that these defenses threaten it because there is no Iranian threat to Europe. Russia has even said on numerous occasions that if the missiles stay, it will install its own short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad or Belarus to threaten the missile defense sites.
Does Russia have a valid argument? Is there no viable Iranian missile threat to Europe? Are these systems therefore really a smoke screen to introduce a network of missile defenses covering Europe—a network with the sole purpose of threatening Russia? Indeed, who threatens whom in Europe, and why?
The Obama administration is confronting the acute problem of U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe, specifically ten interceptors in Poland and ten accompanying radar systems in the Czech Republic. Russian officials regularly and predictably, but falsely, charge that these systems threaten Russian security. For example, at the recent annual Munich Security Conference, Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov expanded on why the missile defense system threatens Eastern Russia, stating:
These missiles, therefore, allegedly threaten Russian security and violate the canons of Russia’s definition of strategic stability—stability that it seeks to impress upon foreign audiences. The Russian government has made clear its insistence that the U.S. scrap plans for missile defenses before negotiations over a treaty with Russia on the reduction of strategic arms can occur. Most recently, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov again insisted that a link exists between negotiating lowered ceilings for strategic offensive weapons and missile defenses.
Similarly, the Russian General Staff rejected the idea of reducing offensive weapons, because Russia can compete with the United States only in the nuclear arena. The General Staff rejected the idea of reducing strategic offensive weapons unless the United States were to forego not only missile defenses but also cruise missiles, particularly cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Inasmuch as Moscow recently announced that it might deploy tactical nuclear cruise missiles on submarines, along with intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of its sea-based deterrence, the fundamentally one-sided and unserious nature of Russian demands stands out clearly. Nevertheless, undeterred by the incongruity of their position, high-ranking Russian officials openly say that removing such defenses is a precondition for a U.S.-Russian partnership, not just a new treaty that reduces strategic arms. Some analysts even say that Russia considers such a strategic American policy shift a precondition for support in Afghanistan.
In this context, Russian officials echo Ivanov and claim that, because no threat of Iranian missiles (conventional or nuclear) exists now and will not exist for several years, there is no justification for building the missile defense systems. Indeed, during the week of March 20, 2009, three separate statements to this effect were made by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. All reiterated that there is no Iranian threat, that Iran cannot make missiles endangering Central Europe in the foreseeable future, and that Moscow sees nothing in Iran’s nuclear program indicating intent for military use. Moreover, these officials argued, Washington is deliberately exaggerating the Iranian threat in order to construct a threat to Russia.
Therefore, the only purpose of these defenses must be to threaten Russia’s vital interests. Since ten such units alone do not constitute that threat, Moscow charges that these systems are merely the thin edge of a larger program to saturate Central and Eastern Europe with missile defenses to prevent Russia from launching its nuclear weapons in a first strike against a conventional or nuclear attack from the West.
Russian generals believe not only that will there be no end to American missile defenses that neutralize Russia’s first-strike capability but also that Washington will use its large armament of 7,000 sea-launched cruise missiles to launch a conventional first strike, possibly including missile defenses, to incapacitate Russian nuclear missiles. That first strike (in Russian parlance, a retaliatory strike, or otvetno-vstrechnyi udar) follows Russia’s military doctrine, which mandates such strikes to compensate for Russia’s conventional inferiority vis-à-vis NATO and the United States. This is, parenthetically, another reason why real reductions in strategic offensive arms, such as those suggested by President Obama, so unsettle the General Staff, which knows that only by using nuclear weapons can Russia defend against what Moscow expects to be a conventional U.S. threat. Consequently, missile defenses prevent Russia from launching a retaliatory strike and further degrade Russian capabilities, leaving the country vulnerable to attack. Because Warsaw and Prague defied Russia’s objections by hosting these missile defenses, the two cities have received numerous Russian threats to target them with nuclear and conventional missiles.
Moreover, as Ivanov said in Munich, confidence-building measures enhancing these defenses’ transparency do not sate Russian worries or give Russia a real defensive alternative. In other words, the United States must remove the missile defense program’s interceptor missiles entirely; there is no room for compromise. As Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, recently told the press, Russia’s attitude toward the missile defenses should not be linked to any other issue (except, obviously, strategic offensive weapons cuts). He further argued:
Moscow has responded, as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev indicated in November 2008, by deploying, in Kaliningrad, Iskander missiles—which can be configured either as cruise or ballistic missiles and either as conventional or nuclear missiles—and using systems to jam the American missile defenses. It should also be noted that. according to Russian defense correspondent Mikhail Barabanov in November 2008,
Barabanov further, and correctly, noted that the introduction of the Iskander “represents a radical increase in the capacity of Russian formations to inflict high-precision strikes against any target in Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe,” especially as the Iskanders’ range can be easily modified to go beyond 500 kilometers (311 miles), making it an intermediate-range missile, hitherto banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Therefore, the Iskander deployment represented an attempt to split the alliance by signaling to the Europeans that Washington was rashly risking Europeans security.
Indeed, Russian generals say that the government has decided to make those deployments, pending Washington’s response to Moscow’s ultimatum. In other words, Moscow will deploy Iskanders if Washington deploys the defenses.
Recent Russian statements claiming that it is not deploying Iskanders because Washington is not hurrying to build the defenses are not a concession; rather, they merely restate Moscow’s original position. The order in which they would deploy the Iskander missiles has not been given, proving that this is merely another instance in which Russia makes a threat, retracts it, and then expects a reward. According to Russian defense correspondent Pavel Felgenhauer, the Iskanders are not even in the planning stage, so in fact there is nothing to deploy. Nevertheless, despite that they have not been deployed, work on the missiles progresses. Even as this “concession” was announced, Russia indicated that it was moving forward to utilize advances in unmanned aerial vehicle technology in order to enhance Iskander missile accuracy.
Russia’s Omsk Engine Design Bureau has begun the large-scale production of engines for the Iskander-M missile, indicating that, while the missiles are not ready to be deployed soon, the five missile brigades that Medvedev alluded to in his November 2008 address to the Federal Assembly will be fully equipped by 2016. A Polish analysis similarly concludes:
Russian generals and officials have also frequently threatened to target not just U.S. missile defenses but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and other states that host elements of U.S. missile defense systems. During his September 2008 trip to Poland, Lavrov went even further, saying:
Lavrov then announced that if Poland chose a “special allied relationship” with Washington, Warsaw would have to bear the responsibilities and risks involved. Furthermore, Moscow, in principle, opposed making its relations with third parties a function of Russian-American disputes. Thus, Russia’s leaders have exploited the opportunity presented by the missile defense program in order to speak to the United States and Europe in the language of ultimatums and threats, remilitarize European security, and reignite the nuclear arms race with the West.
Strategic Stability and the Defenses in Europe
Ivanov has complained that the placement of these missiles in Central Europe endangers strategic stability. Since then, other Russian spokesmen, such as Duma member Andrei Kokoshin and the General Staff, have reiterated the view that any agreement with Washington must return to the principles of strategic stability held during the 1970-90 period. What does this entail?
Here we must note that a constant factor in the Russo-American relationship, irrespective of its political temperature at any time, is that both sides’ nuclear forces remain frozen in a posture of mutual deterrence that implies a prior adversarial relationship that could easily deteriorate further under any and all circumstances. The problematic nature of the bilateral relationship today—just as was the case during the Cold War, to a greater extent—is not due to deterrence. In Moscow’s view, this posture of strategic stability based on deterrence does not represent an existential fact of life but rather a conscious political choice on its part and one that it wishes to reimpose on the United States. This deterrence is therefore a manifestation of a prior underlying and fundamental political antagonism, leading Russia to settle upon deterrence as a policy and strategy because deterrence expresses its foundational presupposition of conflict with America and NATO.
Thus, the fundamental basis of the rivalry with Washington stems from the nature of the Russian political system, which cannot survive in its present structure without that presupposition of conflict and without a revisionist demand for equality with the United States. From Russia’s standpoint, given that presupposition of conflict, the only way it can have security vis-à-vis the United States is if America becomes shackled to a continuation of the mutual hostage relationship based on mutual deterrence that characterized the Cold War, so that it cannot act unilaterally (e.g., build missile defenses, use conventional missiles atop launchers, etc.) If that were to become the ensuing situation, then both sides would have a relationship of strategic stability. As Sergei Lavrov told an interviewer in February 2007:
Here Lavrov signaled Russia’s unwillingness to leave a mutually adversarial relationship with America and its presupposition of mutual hostility as reflected in both sides’ nuclear deployments. In this fashion, to the degree that both sides are shackled to this mutual hostage relationship, Russia gains a measure of restraint—or even of control—over U.S. policy. As Patrick Morgan has observed, this kind of classic deterrence “cuts through the complexities” of needing to have a full understanding of or dialogue with the other side. Instead, it enables a state, in this case Russia, to “simplify by dictating the opponent’s preferences” (emphasis in the original). Thanks to such a mutual hostage relationship, Russian leaders see all other states that wish to attack Russia or exploit internal Russian crises like Chechnya as being deterred. As such, nuclear weapons remain a critical component in ensuring strategic stability and, less openly stated, in giving Russia room to act freely in world affairs.
Indeed, Moscow sees its nuclear arsenal as a kind of all-purpose deterrent, keeping the United States and NATO from intervening in conflicts such as the Chechen Wars or the more recent war with Georgia in 2008. From this standpoint, Russia sees the need for deterrence of the United States especially, at the price of accepting that Russia, too, is deterred from a nuclear strike on the United States. In return for accepting that it is similarly deterred, Russia postulates, as one of the fundamental corollaries of its policy and strategy, that Moscow must retain the ability to intimidate and destroy Europe with its nuclear and other missiles. In other words, believing a priori that Europe is the site of a presumptive enemy action against it, Russia demands as a condition of its security that Europe be insecure.
Indeed, reports of Russia’s forthcoming defense doctrine from August 2008 openly say that the United States and NATO represent the main threats to Russian security and that Washington will continue to seek military supremacy and disregard international law for a generation. The document referred to in August 2008 was a draft blueprint for the development of Russia’s armed forces through 2030. It concluded that:
Until 2030, the United States will remain the only superpower and continue to exert a substantial influence on the general military-political situation.
“Taking into account the continuity of Washington’s foreign policy and its long-term military construction programs, we may surmise that the USA will regard military superiority as the most important precondition for the successful implementation of its foreign policy views.”
As the U.S. military presence around the world continues, Washington and other NATO members will continue through 2030 to aim to react preventively to threats despite international law, and will seek international recognition of NATO as the sole organization with the right to use force, on the basis of NATO’s own governing body’s decision (i.e., unilaterally bypassing the United Nations).
Threats to Russia include proliferation of strategic nuclear forces military operations by other countries that disregard international law, attempts to oust Russia from global and regional security organizations, breaching of arms control treaties, “a U.S. course toward global leadership,” and NATO enlargement in regions around Russia.
Accordingly, Russian leaders perceive that “there has been a steady trend toward broadening the use of armed forces” and that “conflicts are spreading to larger areas, including the sphere of Russia's vital interests,” because Russian leaders may be tempted to follow suit or react forcefully to real or imaginary challenges.
Thus, Russia’s arms control posture represents its continuing demand for substantive, if not quantitative, parity as well as for deterrence against America to prevent Washington from breaking free of Russia’s embrace and following policies that Russia deems antithetical to its interests. Moreover, Moscow calculates such parity regionally as well as globally, so that Russia also demands a regional (qualitative or substantive) parity with America at various regional levels, most prominently Europe. Russia’s demand for restoring parity is not an unreachable numerical parity but rather entails a strategic stability or equilibrium in which both sides’ forces remain mutually hostage to each other in a deterrence relationship. This is seen quite explicitly in the missile defense issue. As Ryabkov said:
Since Moscow denies that there is any threat to justify missile defenses, however, what Russia demands, essentially, is termination of the program in Europe.
Furthermore, unlike the United States, Russia is engaged in a comprehensive modernization and renewal of all its nuclear weapons, clearly in the belief that it needs to deter America by military means and that it might even need to fight using such weapons. Likewise, Moscow has consistently said that the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe and Asia will disrupt existing balances of strategic forces and undermine global and regional stability. Therefore, in response, Moscow must threaten Europe.
Thus, Russia’s arms control posture represents its continuing demand for substantive, if not quantitative, parity as well as for deterrence with a perceived adversarial United States in order to prevent Washington from breaking free of the Russian embrace and following policies that Russia deems antithetical to its interests.
Russia and the Iranian Threat
Consequently, we can pose the question of whether Russia’s charges that these systems threaten it are justified. Who threatens whom in Eastern Europe, and why? Russian threats to Poland, Ukraine, and others suggest that issues and dynamics other than missile defense are at work here. First, it simply is not true that Russia believes that there is no Iranian nuclear or missile threat. In February 2006, Ivanov publicly observed that Russia’s neighbors (Iran, China, and Pakistan) have intermediate-range ballistic missiles, meaning that only Russia and America do not possess these missiles. Ivanov and the Russian Ministry, therefore, advocated globalizing the INF Treaty to include all missile powers, otherwise Russia could leave the treaty and build such missiles itself, despite all the readily apparent dangers and disadvantages of doing so. As President Putin told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007:
Obviously, Putin was referring to Iranian and Chinese missiles. But Russia dare not announce that its “allies” represent its most immediate security threat. Nonetheless, Russia privately expressed its concerns about Iran to the Pentagon, showing that Moscow fully recognizes the Iranian and Chinese threats.
Russia refuses to acknowledge the Iranian threat publicly, an attempt to prevent the United States from defending Europe against it by limited missile defenses. The reasons for this seemingly bizarre stance are, unfortunately, quite obvious.
Since 1995, Russia has regarded Iran as a promising partner in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and particularly as a bulwark against further U.S. presence there. Since at least 1995, Russia’s government has maintained that as long as Iran keeps the “bomb in the basement” and does not jeopardize other key Russian interests, a partnership is very much in Russia’s interest and could actually serve as an example of how to conduct nonproliferation. Russia also saw Iran as a partner in ending regional conflicts in Central Asia, controlling Caspian energy flows, and stabilizing the Caucasus. Russian analysts recommended forming a partnership, if not more, with Iran, clearly believing that doing so would suppress Russia’s and the Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) internal Islamist threats—threats that Iran did not support. Even though Russian authorities in 1922 had fully grasped Iran’s potential for threatening Central Asia and the Caucasus and had even sold it weapons partly to deter that threat, Moscow still insists that Iran does not sponsor terrorism or represent a threat to it or its neighbors. Iran is simply not regarded as a genuine threat, despite whatever might be said about Islamism in general, which analysts often discuss in relation to the North Caucasus and Central Asia. In fact, many policymakers recommend dealing with Muslim societies, specifically Iran, to engage Islamism and divert it from threatening Russia.
Moscow’s Threat Assessment
Given this, what about missile defense so alarms Moscow? To understand Moscow’s alarm and anxiety about these missile defenses, we must look at Moscow’s threat assessments involving these defenses.
As Ivanov and leading Russian foreign policy analysts Dmitri Trenin and Sergei Rogov suggest, and as the General Staff implies, Moscow claims that missile defenses represent an American perception of threats from Russian nuclear missiles, thereby meaning that these defenses aim to neutralize Russian missiles in potential conflict. Either a conventional air and space first strike, possibly involving these networks in Europe, would attack Russian missiles, or else these missile defenses would frustrate a retaliatory second strike, thus leaving Russia defenseless.
While ten missile interceptors are no threat, they represent the first stage of a planned or potential U.S. missile network in Europe that could neutralize Russia’s first and/or second strike capabilities and shift the burden of war to Europe.
The stationing of missile defenses at bases in Central Europe would serve as a pretext for stationing offensive missiles. As a result, this would force Moscow to assume the worst-case scenario and possibly cause Russia to attempt to shoot the missiles down, leading to a conflict with America.
These defenses and any subsequent deployments rupture the fabric of strategic stability, in which neither side has the freedom of action or margin of superiority to think it could employ coercive diplomacy or military force with impunity. That strategic stability equation is critical to Russia, lest Washington be tempted to think it could strike at Russia with relative impunity.
These defenses entrench the United States in Europe’s military defense and foreclose Moscow’s ability to intimidate or reestablish its hegemony over Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and possibly even the CIS. If missile defenses exist in Europe, they greatly diminish or even negate Russian missile threats. Because empire and the presupposition of enduring enemies are the justifications for and corollaries of internal autocracy, the end of empire allegedly entails Russia’s irrevocable decline as a great power and crucially generates tremendous pressure for domestic reform.
Furthermore, as part of its strategy, Russia insists on being able to intimidate Europe through the threat of possessing missiles like the Iskander, especially its cruise missile variant and its tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). Indeed, Russia’s threats of missile strikes against virtually every state from the Baltic States to Georgia arguably demonstrate the need for both missile defenses and NATO’s continuing strengthening, if not enlargement. In fact, although Russia recently announced its intention to equip the Baltic Fleet with nuclear weapons—clearly in an effort to offset these missile defenses—it actually has long been violating the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives agreed upon by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin, which removed TNWs from U.S. and Russian fleets in 1991–92. This public revelation of Russian cheating, under the best of circumstances, would have raised red flags in Washington and Europe regarding future cooperation. Today, it merely confirms the overwhelming impression that arms control deals with Russia are inherently dangerous and futile, because without rigorous inspection and verification protocols, Moscow will cheat on them. Thus, regarding Russian threats in the Baltic, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt announced that, “According to the information to which we have access, there are already tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad area. They are located both at and in the vicinity of units belonging to the Russia fleet.”
Worse yet, recently, Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the Russian navy’s deputy chief of staff, told RIA Novosti, “Probably, tactical nuclear weapons will play a key role in the future,” and the navy may fit new, less powerful nuclear warheads to existing types of cruise missiles. “There is no longer any need to equip missiles with powerful nuclear warheads,” Burtsev said. “We can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles.” Here again we should note that Moscow has frequently attacked Washington for developing low-yield nuclear weapons, so this confession that Russia has its own weapons reveals its tendentious and one-sided policy.
Simultaneously, as Lavrov stated in Poland, Russia wants a free hand in its relations with key countries and regions, irrespective of its relations with America, and thus Russia resents the presence of American power in Europe, Asia, etc. Indeed, not only does Russia wish to shackle U.S. power to the mutual hostage relationship of deterrence and mutually agreed-upon destruction, it also clearly believes, as Lavrov’s and numerous others’ threats to Poland and other states show, that its security depends upon its ability to intimidate Europe with nuclear weapons and other threats.
Consequently, removing those missile defenses before neutralizing the Iranian threat by political or other means will not solve the strategic dilemmas of the Russo-European agenda; instead it will only freeze the status quo, wherein Russia feels free to threaten Europe with impunity whenever it feels the need to do so. Indeed, the perception of a NATO alliance in disarray and of America in retreat that Russia will take away from so unilateral an American move will only intensify Moscow’s belief that it need only threaten Europe to get its way. This is hardly the optimal path to security and peace in Europe.