Relaunching the Missile Debate

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The debate between the United States and Russia over U.S. plans to deploy a ballistic missile-defense system in Europe is heating up again. Persistent differences with Poland over its conditions for accepting defensive interceptor missiles have led U.S. officials to hint that they might even consider Lithuania as an alternative deployment site. This shift appears aimed at pressuring Poland into showing greater flexibility in the negotiations, but the idea of Washington establishing military bases in a country that was once part of the Soviet Union has raised the Kremlin's ire.

In June, the chief U.S. negotiator on the issue, John Rood, flew to Lithuania to brief its government on the status of the U.S.-Polish negotiations. While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Prague on July 8 to sign a missile-defense agreement with the Czechs, the U.S.-Polish talks remain stalemated.

Although the U.S. State Department has declined to characterize Rood's discussions in Vilnius as formal negotiations over a possible alternative site, the Pentagon acknowledged that the United States was considering other options should the talks with Poland remain deadlocked.

Two factors have impeded consummation of a U.S.-Polish agreement. Polish officials want compensation in the form of U.S.-funded military modernization and other measures designed to ensure that Poland's security does not suffer because of the deployments. Indeed, Russian officials have hinted at serious retaliation should Poland accept the interceptors.

For the past few months, U.S. officials have offered proposals designed to assuage Russian security concerns about the planned ballistic missile defenses. The envisaged confidence-building measures aim to increase the transparency of operations at the base to the Russian government and to limit any theoretical threat the systems might pose to Russia's own missile arsenal.

At his April 2008 summit with President George W. Bush in Sochi, then-President Vladimir Putin praised what he uncharacteristically described as sincere U.S. efforts to meet Russia's security concerns. Putin told the media that "certainly, in principle, adequate measures of confidence-building and transparency can be found."

Precise details concerning what Washington is offering remain unclear, but Russian and U.S. sources have revealed their basic content. Washington has proposed that Russian personnel could, with the host governments' approval, conduct detailed inspections at the bases. In addition, U.S. officials have offered not to put the systems into operation until Iran demonstrates the capacity to attack Europe with ballistic missiles. Finally, U.S. officials have indicated they would accept limits on the scale of the missile-defense systems deployed in Russia's vicinity in order to avoid the threat of overwhelming Russia's own ballistic-missile arsenal.

Translating these concepts into operational arms-control limits has proven challenging. For starters, Russia's role in determining whether Iran is capable of threatening Europe with missile attacks, which would justify activating the missile interceptors in Poland, remains unclear. The two sides have differed for years about whether Iran presents a genuine threat to NATO's security.

Russian analysts have long accused the United States of exaggerating Iranian capabilities to justify stationing a missile-defense system in Europe that really aims to counter Russia's own nuclear deterrent. U.S. officials insist that they will not give Russia the right to veto its missile-defense operations.

In addition, Putin and other officials are demanding that Russia receive a permanent presence at the missile-defense facilities to monitor their operations. Lavrov has publicly stated that Russia would insist on having a permanent military presence at the planned missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to monitor events at the facilities "second by second."

Czech and Polish leaders, recalling past periods of Russian and Soviet occupation, categorically reject hosting a permanent Russian presence. A day after the Sochi summit, Poland's deputy foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, warned that a "Russian presence in Poland is out of the question. Such a solution had been resorted to in the past and will not be repeated."

In the past, the Czech Republic and Poland also sought reciprocation from the Kremlin, but Russian officials have dismissed as "ridiculous" the idea of granting Czech or Polish representatives' access to Russian defense sites, even for short-term inspections, and the Czechs and Poles appear to have dropped the idea.

Even so, what steps Washington might take to overcome Russian fears about a missile-defense breakout also remains uncertain. For example, it is unclear where any limits might apply, how long they might last and whether they might restrict the joint missile-defense research and development programs the Pentagon is conducting with foreign allies such as Australia, Israel and Japan.

Moreover, it is unclear how these measures would be enforced. The Bush administration shuns overly rigid arms agreements that could constrain U.S. flexibility in responding rapidly to emerging threats. In recent arms-control negotiations, however, Russian policymakers have rejected informal arrangements, insisting that the United States negotiate formal, legally binding treaties. Not unreasonably, Russian leaders worry that a future Czech, Polish, Lithuanian or U.S. government might simply decide to stop enforcing any informal understandings, confronting Russia with a fait accompli.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow and director of program management at the Hudson Institute. © Project Syndicate