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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Calling Moscow’s Bluff on Missile Defense

It would be interesting to know if the military’s top brass are drinking champagne as they sit in their offices on Smolenskaya Ploshchad and Arbat, or if they are cursing those cunning Americans for outmaneuvering Moscow. U.S. President Barack Obama announced late last week that he had made the difficult decision to cancel long-standing U.S. plans to deploy elements of a global missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The prospect of Washington creating a so-called “third position region” (after California and Alaska) close to Russia’s borders had been a main stumbling block in U.S.-Russian relations for the past several years.

During that time, Russia’s leaders had been screaming at every street corner that the deployment of 10 U.S. interceptor missiles constituted a dire threat to Russia. Efforts by Washington to explain that 10 interceptor missiles could hardly disrupt the strategic balance — Russia currently has about 3,000 nuclear warheads, and even after negotiated reductions, the number will drop to no fewer than 1,500 — were like talking to a brick wall. Moscow insisted that a “third position region” could become the first step in an aggressive program that could end with Russia encircled by hundreds of interceptor missiles. Russian officials even used the unusual argument that the sly Americans could refit the interceptor missiles with nuclear warheads and turn them into medium-range strategic missiles aimed at Moscow. The officials ignored efforts by defense specialists to explain that the need to first test such refitted rockets would make it impossible to conduct the operation in secret.

And now this good news has happened. The United States has decided to reject the very form of missile defense deployment that had so irritated Moscow. Of course, this was not only a reaction to Russia’s demands. From the very beginning, U.S. Democrats had been skeptical about the missile defense architecture proposed by former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, and they were justifiably doubtful about its effectiveness. And now Washington has announced two fundamental new developments. First, U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program is not advancing as rapidly as previously thought. Iran’s medium-range missiles constitute a far greater threat at present. Second, the U.S. military has achieved major progress with its shorter-range missile defense systems — the sea-based Aegis system equipped with Standard-3 missiles, and the land-based THAAD system. Washington plans to use those systems to create a new missile defense architecture for Europe by 2020. But the important point for U.S.-Russian relations is that neither the Aegis nor the THAAD missiles have sufficient range to be considered a threat to Russia’s nuclear missiles.

One way or another, events in the coming weeks and months will demonstrate Russia’s true foreign policy goals. If Moscow seriously considered the planned deployment of elements of a global missile defense system as a threat, then the removal of that threat should elicit a corresponding response. Obama’s decision opens the way for rapid progress on a number of fronts, primarily on the stalled talks for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Now — while still saving face — Russia can compromise with the United States on the so-called “breakout potential.” (The United States wanted to count only nuclear warheads that are already deployed on missiles and remove those stored in warehouses from the overall tally.) Russia could also agree to a more flexible system for counting delivery vehicles.

Although many in Washington are hoping for it, Moscow is unlikely to support sanctions against Iran. For now, Tehran does not want to cancel its nuclear program, and Russia wants to go ahead with plans to deliver its S-300 air defense system to Iran. In fact, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently stated that such sanctions are counterproductive and that Russia would not support them.

However, another scenario is also possible. Maybe the Kremlin was just using the “threat” posed by the deployment of elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic as a way to show the Russian public that the West wants to surround Russia. That enabled Russia’s leaders to avoid thinking of an even modestly constructive program for cooperating with the West on strategic arms. Their logic went along the lines of, “Let the United States cancel its missile defense plans first.” And now, Washington has done just that. Under these circumstances, the Kremlin might quickly find some new reason to be upset with the United States. After all, Washington has not rejected all forms of missile defense. Why not, then, raise the alarm about the inevitable concentration of U.S. naval forces “close to our borders”? Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has already rushed to declare, “A ship can change its position, and if a missile defense system is onboard, it is perfectly obvious that the ship can be redeployed in a conceivable time frame, to a conceivable region, including to Russia’s shores.” While they are at it, Russian officials might as well demand that the United States completely reject any plans for a missile defense system and that it return to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. They could further demand that the United States close its military bases in Bulgaria and Romania. If it has the desire, Russia could throw up any number of obstacles.

The way it looks now, what should have been a major diplomatic victory for Russia has actually deprived Moscow of an important foreign policy bargaining chip. Now the ball is in Russia’s court.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.