By Karl-Heinz Kamp

NATO, Russia and Missile Defence mark a triangle which contains political promises but also the danger of failure and friction.

At last year's Lisbon Summit, NATO decided to develop a missile defence capability protecting the entire Alliance territory against the growing danger of ballistic missile attacks. The core of the system will be provided by the United States (US) and will consist of so called 'Aegis' vessels with interceptors aboard cruising in European waters. NATO's European allies should provide additional capabilities to complete the system and to build the bridge between the US national missile defence efforts and the NATO system.

Earlier in 2010 NATO and Russia agreed to reset their relationship - after the Georgia war and the debate about a potential NATO membership of Ukraine had led to serious irritations on both sides. Given Russia's traditional concerns about US or NATO defence systems which - in Moscow's view - could neutralise Russian strategic missile capabilities, a close collaboration between NATO and Russia on missile defence could kill two birds with one stone: it could provide a field for practical teamwork for mutual benefit and could help to alleviate reservations and suspicions on both sides.

However, whether missile defence can really become a sticking point for the NATO-Russian relationship remains to be seen. Currently, at least five truths could become game changers and require particular attention.

First, NATO-Russian relations will remain bumpy despite cooperation rhetoric on both sides. It is true that Russia has never had such a stable and peaceful region west of its borders than NATO today. There is definitively no military threat emanating from the Atlantic Alliance. In turn, from NATO's viewpoint there was never so much cooperation and partnership than with the Russia of the 21st century - despite Moscow not always being easy to deal with. Still, both sides seem to communicate on different wave lengths and harbour traditional conceptions about each other. Moscow still seems to believe that NATO is the executing arm of the American global strategy. This was not the case - not in the Cold War and definitively not today. In turn, NATO regards Russia as a unified actor which shapes its strategies in a cohesive (and sometimes offensive) manner. Instead, decision making circles in Moscow seem often fragmented and occasionally contradictory.

For both sides, NATO and Russia, regard the purpose and the added value of cooperation differently. For Russia, cooperation - particularly within the respective forum, the NATO Russia Council (NRC) - is primarily a means of getting influence on NATO's decision making processes. By being an equal partner at the discussion table, Moscow hopes to solve tricky issues - like, for instance, the membership question. For NATO, the NRC is more a forum for consultation and common action in those areas where a consensus seems possible. This implies the option of 'agreeing to disagree' if it comes to truly delicate questions - NATO enlargement being one of them. Both views are legitimate but contradictory and therefore a frequent source of frustration on both sides. NATO suspects Russia of trying to drive a wedge into the Alliance. In turn, Moscow will persistently be upset about NATO acting as a unified body with a pre-consulted position among the 28 member states. Instead, Moscow was always hoping for meetings in a true "29 spirit" in a sense that each country would speak for itself, whether it belongs to NATO or not.

Then, as a consequence, there is occasional dishonesty on both sides. NATO purportedly states that it does not define Russia as a risk or threat. But in reality, some NATO members do. Particularly NATO's new members in the east point to the fact that Moscow's harsh rhetoric or Russian military activities in its north-western territories do not help to alleviate historical concerns in those countries, and many actually joined the Alliance partly because of Russia. Russia in turn always emphasises how much relevance it puts on the cooperation with NATO. In reality, though, the relations with Brussels range comparably low on Moscow's foreign policy priority list. Moreover, since WikiLeaks, it is no longer a secret that President Vladimir Putin regards it as his historical mission to dissolve the Atlantic Alliance. Some see the harsh words Putin and others use vis-à-vis NATO as an inferiority complex or the remnants of the ghost pain of having lost the Soviet empire.

Missile defence seems to encapsulate all the inconsistencies and contradictions of the US-Russian or NATO-Russian relationship. It is sometimes difficult to fully understand what both sides are up to - except a general consensus that missile defence should be a cooperative and perhaps even a somehow common effort. Russia for a long time favoured a truly common missile defence project where both sides would decide together on whether or not to intercept incoming missiles -knowing that this is a step way too far. Neither the US nor the eastern European NATO members are ready to accept Moscow's finger on the button of a NATO missile defence. Washington promotes the cooperation with Russia on missile defence and professes to deal with Russia on the same basic level - aware that Russia is not on that same level, either militarily or technologically. Russia might hope for a technology transfer but has nothing to offer which is indispensible for the success of the US missile defence plans.

This is why missile defence cooperation is not such an easy ground for re-launching the US-Russian or NATO Russian relationship as both sides indicate. Instead, it has a high potential for frictions and disappointments on both sides - given the positions and preferences as they are.

Lastly, even for NATO itself, an Alliance wide missile defence seems a very difficult project. Since Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), missile defence has been a key priority of the United States. Various presidents have pursued the project with different speeds but all have driven the idea forward. President George W. Bush foresaw a system with ground based interceptors and radar sites based in Eastern Europe. It should have been able to destroy long range missiles flying over Europe to reach North America. As a side effect, the Bush system would have protected large parts of the European NATO territory as well. Thus, this architecture contained a natural incentive for transatlantic cooperation: conceptually, the European allies could focus on the medium range missile threats and could take care of those regions not covered by US protection. The downside of the Bush approach was that Russia was highly alarmed about radar sites or missile launchers stationed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Neither the fact that only ten interceptors were planned in Poland - which is nothing in comparison with Russia's huge strategic missile arsenal - nor the hint that the American defence effort was primarily directed against Iran, could stop Moscow from complaining.

President Barack Obama removed this stumbling block for the US-Russian relationship by proposing a new architecture. His 'European Phased Adapted Approach' (EPAA) will focus at least initially on medium range threats for Europe coming from the Middle East - Iran in particular - and only in the longer run on intercontinental missiles threatening the United States. The interceptors will be deployed on ships - the Aegis cruisers - and will be able to cover all European NATO member states. As a result, the EPAA built by the US will provide NATO's Europe with a missile defence system for free. Of course, the European allies could supply additional components (radars, interceptors) to complete the system or to make it more redundant. However, given the dramatic budget cuts in almost all member states, this seems illusionary - no ally has made a concrete offer so far.

In sum, European NATO supports a missile defence system built by the US, with common decision making structures, but does not specify what it is going to contribute. Some European allies even doubt the urgency of a missile defence. For them, agreeing to the project was more a bargaining chip to get the US to withdraw its nuclear forces from Europe, following the flawed argument that if there is defence there is no need for deterrence any more.

The Obama administration will go on with its Phased Adapted Approach focusing first on Europe and later on the American homeland. The first Aegis ships have already been deployed. The US will realise its step by step programme towards a comprehensive missile defence, preferably together with its NATO allies and in some form of cooperation with Russia. However, Washington will not make itself dependent either on NATO's support or on Russia's consent. If Moscow wants to be a partner, it has to agree to a form of cooperation which is acceptable for both sides. If European NATO wants a say in a common missile defence, it has to make concrete contributions. Just to comment from the sideline will not be enough.

Thus, the triangle of NATO, Russia and missile defence will remain a very delicate one. Even if it is unpleasant for Moscow and for some European capitals to realise - in the missile defence business, Washington is in the driver's seat.

(Karl-Heinz Kamp is the Research Director of the NATO Defence College in Rome. The author expresses his personal views.)


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