Moscow's Missile Gambit

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Six years ago, President George W. Bush announced the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the United States' intention to deploy defenses against emerging threats from countries such as North Korea and Iran. Contrary to prevailing expectations, the sky did not fall. Moscow's response, delivered in a statement by President Vladimir Putin, expressed disagreement with the U.S. decision but emphasized that U.S. defenses were not a threat to Russia and that Russia would make major reductions in its strategic offensive forces -- a striking rebuke to the myth that ending the ABM Treaty would lead to an arms race.

Today, the United States and Russia find themselves in opposition on the issue of deploying 10 missile interceptors and supporting radar to Europe -- an act of much less strategic consequence than abandonment of the ABM Treaty. Bush and his national security team have explained the concept in considerable detail to Russia's national security elite. Moscow objects by citing a threat to its own deterrent -- an argument it knows has no merit -- and denies the existence of an Iranian missile threat.

Russia's stance reflects its increasing assertiveness as a major player on the international scene, helped by the price of its energy exports. Moscow is eager to regain its superpower status and thinks that the path to success requires painting the United States as the threat. The United States, as a prominent former Russian official once said, is the threat Russians love to hate.

With equal determination, the Bush administration has sought to change Russian perspectives. Over five years, the United States has made proposal after proposal to work with Russia's military and industry on missile defense. Both sides have been involved in these initiatives, offering modest cooperative activities, such as activation of a joint early warning center, and projects that would be more technically and politically challenging. Each time cooperation has been deflected or rejected. Russia's offer of the use of its radar in Azerbaijan, for example, came with a string attached -- that the United States forgo building an interceptor site in Europe.

Undaunted by Moscow's lack of interest, the United States recently proposed seeking agreement on criteria to define the emergence of the Iranian missile threat -- criteria that would need to be met before the United States began operation of the site in Europe. But even the former head of the Strategic Missile Forces, noting the capabilities of a recent Iranian "space vehicle" launch, predicted that Iran would have "ballistic missiles with a range of 3,500 to 4,000 kilometers or even more," possibly in the next few years. Washington reportedly offered Russia access to sites in the United States and, pending agreement with host governments, access to U.S. missile-defense facilities in Europe.

Instead of trying to persuade Russia to do something that it does not perceive to be in its interest, the United States should redouble its efforts to advance the two initiatives sponsored by Bush and Putin that do enjoy widespread support in both countries. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism has grown from 13 partners to more than 60 in a little more than a year. Russia has been a good partner because it is concerned about this threat.

On missile defense, the United States must move forward, just as Russia does when its vital interests are at stake. Washington should continue to be respectful and transparent about the need for deployments but make clear that the United States will proceed without Moscow's cooperation. Going beyond current proposals for cooperation would encourage Russia to be even more intransigent, playing to its instinct to drive wedges between the United States and its allies, and would foster the Kremlin's policy to run out the clock in the hope that the next U.S. administration will abandon the effort in Europe.

On issues where the two countries have mutual interests, such as proliferation and nuclear terrorism, there is more to do with Russia. But waiting for its cooperation on missile defense will only recreate the form, if not the substance, of the Cold War antagonism, while taking energy from opportunities to work together in areas vital to international security.

Robert Joseph served as undersecretary of state and J.D. Crouch II was deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration. Both are senior scholars at the National Institute for Public Policy. This comment appeared in The Washington Post.