Kremlin ups rhetoric on missile defense

Daniel Vajdic Researcher in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute
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The Kremlin’s most recent response to U.S. and NATO missile defense plans in Europe crosses any and all lines associated with both statecraft and logic. Still, some view comments made by Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov as simply more of the same. Speaking at an international missile defense conference organized by the Ministry of Defense in Moscow last week, Makarov said that his country would consider “pre-emptive use of force” against NATO’s future missile defense installations.

Several months earlier, President Dmitry Medvedev himself outlined the Kremlin’s likely reaction in the event that NATO moved forward with the latter stages of its missile defense proposal. In a characteristically melodramatic speech to the “citizens of Russia,” Medvedev announced that missile defense negotiations had failed because the U.S. refused to provide “legal guarantees” that the system — known as European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) — would not and technologically could not be used against Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Medvedev said that Moscow would withdraw from the New START arms control treaty, which took the Obama administration a year to negotiate with Russia and then about another year to push through the Senate for ratification. He threatened to station Iskander short-range ballistic missiles in Russia’s westernmost Kaliningrad region, equip Russia’s ballistic missiles with “advanced missile defense penetration systems and new highly effective warheads,” and deploy offensive weapons systems that would be able to “take out any part of the U.S. missile defense system in Europe.”

At first glance, General Makarov’s statement seems to be a reiteration of Medvedev’s last point. But there’s more than a nuanced difference between the two declarations. Medvedev essentially says that Russia will aim its ballistic missiles at U.S. and NATO missile defense components in Europe. Makarov, on the hand, suggests that the Kremlin may opt to pre-emptively strike the system in its nascent stages before it begins to take a form that would “threaten” Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

One really has to go out of his or her way to make the argument that this is more of the same. Russia has undoubtedly upped the rhetoric over missile defense with Makarov’s comments last week. There are a few potential explanations for this and the Kremlin’s adamant opposition to missile defense more broadly. The most obvious has become almost axiomatic in international affairs discourse: authoritarian regimes deflect domestic challenges through a “besieged fortress” narrative that invents, or at the very least exaggerates, foreign threats.

Because its raison d’être was originally to oppose and undermine the Soviet Union, NATO has remained a reliable boogeyman for the Kremlin and Russian defense officials in particular. The protest movement that at one point amassed nearly 100,000 in Moscow shocked Russia’s political establishment. Although the size of the protests has dwindled in recent months, the Putin regime realizes that the underlying frustrations and grievances of many Russians continue to exist regardless of attendance. It may, therefore, make sense for the Kremlin to highlight the “threat” posed by NATO — and to do so several days before Putin’s inauguration and formal return to the presidency.

But that doesn’t necessarily explain Russia’s emphasis on missile defense. It’s glaringly evident that EPAA won’t be able to shoot down anything approaching the number of Russian ballistic missiles that would be required to affect what Moscow calls “strategic stability,” or Russia’s capacity to inflict an unacceptable level of damage on the U.S. in the event of a U.S. nuclear attack against Russia.

To be sure, U.S. missile defense capabilities like the Aegis-based SM-3 and ground-based midcourse system work and are well worth additional investments to improve and expand on these technologies. At the same time, our missile defense platforms are far from perfect. It’s difficult to imagine how many interceptors the U.S. would have to deploy around the world to even reduce let alone eliminate Russia’s second-strike capability.

Sadly, these considerations are reflective of the type of mindset that remains predominant in both the Kremlin and the Russian defense community. Russia essentially retains only two major remnants of its former superpower status: a seat on the U.N. Security Council and its massive nuclear arsenal. Both are indispensable to Russia’s self-perception as a great power, and the Kremlin’s reflex is to fiercely resist anything that could even theoretically weaken either of these important symbols.

This hyper-sensitivity about the country’s broader relevance as a global player doesn’t justify Russia’s belligerent rhetoric on missile defense. But it does offer a partial explanation. The irony, of course, is that Russia’s polemical demeanor in foreign affairs undercuts its status as a responsible and reliable power on the world stage.

To that end, the administration’s muffled response to General Makarov’s comments doesn’t do Russia any favors. An important aspect of U.S. policy toward Russia should be to guide Moscow away from this kind of behavior. But because the “reset” ignores the Kremlin’s all-too-frequent verbal spasms — Makarov’s being just the most recent example — it only encourages further Russian misconduct.

Daniel Vajdic is a researcher in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).