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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Missile Defense Plan Leaves West Puzzled

For months, it has been Russia's answer to U.S. missile defense plans: a limited anti-missile system that would protect European countries left out of Washington's vision. With a flourish, President Vladimir Putin finally presented a written proposal at a Kremlin ceremony in February.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson politely accepted the plan and promised to study it, but in the West, the Russian proposal has been greeted by puzzled looks and head-scratching. For all the buildup, the plan turns out to be just four pages plus a diagram.

A copy, not released publicly at the time but provided by the Defense Ministry in response to a request last week, reveals a plan long on generalities and short on specifics. It offers little technical evaluation and no cost estimates, development timetables or organizational structures. Instead, it provides a theoretical framework for how a mobile European-based system might be developed using Russian technology.

Since receiving it, NATO has not bothered to schedule the briefings Putin offered. The plan is "a constructive approach to a problem that Russia and NATO have in common,'' a NATO spokesman said diplomatically. But he added, "The proposal was very much lacking in detail.''

Russian officials said the document was intended to be a starting point and expressed frustration that the Western Europeans have not called. "I don't know why,'' said Vice Admiral Valentin Kuznetsov, the chief treaty negotiator for the Defense Ministry. "Either they're afraid or they haven't worked out their own attitude toward the document. We are ready to go to Brussels at any moment.''

Missile defense has become a central issue dividing Russia and the United States, especially since U.S. President George W. Bush took office in January vowing to move forward with an even more ambitious program than President Bill Clinton had considered. The Robert Philip Hanssen spy scandal and subsequent back-and-forth diplomatic expulsions has exacerbated the tension.

But several analysts said they believe the West is missing an opportunity to engage Russia.

This counterproposal, they said, amounts to more than a political ploy to appeal to skeptical U.S. allies in Western Europe; it could be a face-saving attempt by Putin to become part of a joint solution instead of simply an opponent.

"It's a very clumsy attempt to find a compromise, and not very successful in my view,'' said Pavel Podvig, a military analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies. "But still, it is very clear that this is part of the message that Putin is sending: 'We do want to be together with the West, with NATO and even with the United States.'"

If the Russians were part of a Europe-wide missile defense plan, they would be less hostile to a U.S.-based system, said Nikolai Sokov, a former arms control negotiator, especially because development of such a program could mean money for the Russian military-industrial complex.

"Let's be frank: To a large extent, this is a matter of money,'' said Sokov, now a scholar at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "If the Russian defense industry is on board with contracts, they will be able to suppress more traditional, straightforward security concerns expressed by the military.''

The Russian document given to NATO on Feb. 20 states that its aim "is to ensure the strategic and regional stability in Europe by concentrating efforts to create an all-European system of defense from nonstrategic ballistic missiles.'' Unlike the U.S. plan, it targets short- and medium-range missiles instead of intercontinental weapons.

The concept rests on a three-step process: evaluating any missile threats against European states; developing a missile defense concept; and determining deployment of antimissile units. The Russians suggest mobile batteries to be shifted to protect particular regions when they come under threat.

The proposal envisions creating a single database with the characteristics of all known nonstrategic ballistic missiles, opening a joint center with the Europeans to share information from launch warning systems, and testing new equipment using existing Russian facilities. Ground radar would be used at first, but satellite detection systems could be developed.