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Cancellation of the Chicago summit suits Russian, U.S. interests

New article of Dmitry Suslov is published on the site of Valdai Discussion Club

Dmitry Suslov is Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

It became clear that the NATO-Russia summit in Chicago would not happen back in November 2011, when Moscow and Washington announced during the APEC summit in Honolulu that they cannot agree on ballistic missile defense (BMD) and that the talks were just marking time. On November 23, President Medvedev made a harsh but constructive statement on the military-technical measures that Russia could take if Washington’s BMD systems in Europe threaten its strategic nuclear forces. That statement put an end to a year of BMD talks, which officially began in November 2010, after the NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon. It also showed that the sides have not made any progress on the main issue – guarantees that the planned U.S. system will not threaten the Russian strategic arsenal.

Election break

The fact that they failed to agree on BMD by December 2011 meant that the chance for success was postponed for at least a year. In late 2011, Russia and the United States entered a period of presidential and parliamentary elections, which is an off-season for diplomacy. It was clear that an agreement on BMD would be impossible in 2012, when the U.S.-Russian relationship will be dominated by domestic political issues. 

Moreover, the Kremlin knew that the Russian elections would be based on anti-American rhetoric – which became more pronounced in response to demonstrations against perceived election fraud – and, to an even larger degree, on a show of Russia’s renewed military might, in particular the pledge to revive and modernize its core asset, strategic nuclear missiles. Such rhetoric ruled out any possibility of a compromise on the BMD issue. Furthermore, it was in Moscow’s interests to overstate the risks posed to the Russian deterrence potential by the United States’ BMD plans in order to justify large-scale financial injections into the defense industry, in particular the nuclear forces.

For its part, the Obama administration could not make major concessions or even partially meet Russia’s demands in an election year. Besides, the issue was taking on a growing political dimension in the United States, as demonstrated by the congressional decision, prompted by Republicans, to toughen the terms of providing any BMD information to Russia as part of a budget deal. This tied the White House’s hands and prevented it from making even the small moves it proposed in the fall of 2011, which Moscow described as insufficient.
So Medvedev’s statement of November 23 was to be expected. It drew a line under the failed talks and also determined the modality of U.S.-Russian relations on that issue, including in the 2012 election year. We will discuss them later.

In short, it became clear by late November that the BMD talks could be resumed no sooner than in 2013 provided that Barack Obama is elected for a second term. All of this has been reaffirmed at the recent U.S.-Russia summit in Seoul.

The Russian and U.S. stances

It is not surprising, given the sides’ opposing approaches to the issue, that they failed to reach an agreement over the past year. The problem is rooted in Russia’s adherence to the philosophy of strategic deterrence, strategic parity and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Moscow believes strategic parity with the United States safeguards its security and great power status, and it sees the United States’ BMD policy as a threat to parity in the medium or long term, irrespective of the practical intentions of U.S. administrations.

Moscow is worried by the mobile and adaptive nature of the BMD strategy as proposed by the Obama administration, in particular plans to deploy a considerable number of antimissiles on Aegis BMD warships. The Russian leadership fears that such BMD warships, if they are deployed in the Baltic, Barents and Northern Seas and armed with high-speed antimissiles, would threaten Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. Washington has refused to guarantee that such warships will never be deployed in these northern seas, and its intention to adapt all its cruisers to carry such antimissiles only adds to the Russian leadership’s concerns. 

Moscow does not accept the assurance that the overwhelming majority of U.S. BMD warships are designed for deterring China in line with the current U.S. military strategy.

Since Russia’s BMD stance is based on a worst-case scenario, the Kremlin rejects all other objective evidence demonstrating that implementation of the U.S. BMD plans is unlikely to create any threat to the Russian strategic nuclear forces in the foreseeable future, particularly if these forces are modernized.

This evidence includes, first, the strict financial and technological limitations that prevent the United States from deploying effective BMD systems in the near future. The real goal of the U.S. BMD systems in Europe is to strengthen Europe’s military-political ties with the United States given that Washington is reducing its military presence in the region and shifting the focus to Asia, rather than to counter Iranian short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles or limit Russia’s strategic potential.

Second, it is unclear if the third and fourth stages of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) can be implemented. When the new (probably Republican) administration comes to power in the United States in 2017, U.S. BMD policy will most likely change again. It is no accident the Obama administration has postponed implementation of the BMD plans until after the end of his second term. 

Third, Poland has been included in Obama’s BMD plans not because it wants to limit Russia’s strategic nuclear potential but due to domestic political concerns (the Republicans, as well as the Polish and Eastern European electorate) and Washington’s unwillingness to foster an impression that it is betraying its Eastern European allies.

Fourth, the SM-3 Block IIA and SM-3 Block IIB antimissiles, which worry Moscow so much, so far exist only on paper, and there are no guarantees that they will be built at all.

Russia insists that the United States pledges not to target Russian facilities with its BMD systems. This amounts to a new version of the 1972 ABM Treaty, even if in the form of political, as opposed to legally binding, obligations. Moscow also wants the sides to clearly define tactical, quantitative and geographical criteria and ceilings, which, if violated, would amount to a threat to Russian strategic nuclear forces. The criteria include a pledge that BMD elements will not be deployed in the northern seas, that the velocity of the antimissiles to be deployed in Europe will be limited and that U.S. radars of the European BMD system will not extend to Russian territory. There is also the issue of the permanent deployment of Russian servicemen at the European BMD facilities planned by the United States and NATO.

The United States rejects these demands (excluding the last one), but not because it wants to delude Russia or deprive it of the ability to deliver an enormous retaliatory nuclear strike, but for domestic political considerations.

Republicans forged a consensus in U.S. foreign policy elite since 2001 that any limits on the BMD policy would be tantamount to the betrayal of national security interests and the abdication of responsibility to protect the country from missile threats. The Obama administration, and any administration after it, will never think otherwise.

This is why Washington has tried to convince Moscow that the planned European BMD system would not threaten Russian strategic nuclear forces, and has offered verification measures acceptable to the White House. It continues to invite Russian military experts to watch the trials of SM-3 antimissiles, says it is ready to sign a political declaration with Russia promising not to use BMD systems against it (without any details or limitations) and to provide information on the performance specifications of antimissiles. Washington is even considering inviting Russian specialists to BMD sites and practical BMD cooperation.

But this is unacceptable to Russia, whose interests depend not only (and not even mostly) on the plans and ambitions of the Obama administration (which could change any day), as on clear performance, quantitative and qualitative limits on U.S. BMD plans irrespective of who sits in the Oval Office.

Artificial problem


Russia has long said that the NATO-Russia Council summit in Chicago should be held only if the United States accepts Russian BMD demands. No wonder the summit was called off when the sides said in late 2011 that they cannot agree on ballistic missile defense.

But is it fair to link the summit with the BMD issue? After all, the agenda of NATO-Russian relations includes more issues than just BMD, such as Afghanistan (which is a very real problem and the main sphere of NATO-Russia cooperation), piracy and international terrorism. NATO and Russia would have definitely found issues for discussion in Chicago, especially since they have agreed to establish a U.S. center near Ulyanovsk on the Volga for the multimodal transit of non-lethal cargo to and from Afghanistan. The base is practical evidence of Moscow’s willingness to engage in constructive cooperation with the United States and NATO and of Washington’s readiness to strengthen its dependence on Russia in a priority sphere of its foreign policy.

Moscow has clearly decided to stick to principle on the issue of Chicago, seeking to put additional political and diplomatic pressure on the United States and NATO and trying to show that the BMD issue is very important to it. Russia fears that the interested parties would only talk round the real problem, as happened with the issue of NATO expansion (but not with Ukraine or Georgia) and Russia’s objections. In fact, Russia’s rhetoric and talk of a new arms race (which should not be taken seriously), as well as Medvedev’s statement of November 23, 2011 have the same goal of preventing the problem from “resolving itself” even if the United States continues its BMD policy. The cancellation of the summit is therefore a fresh indication of Russia’s objections. It will be discussed and hence the problem will not be forgotten.

Linking the summit to the BMD issue is also designed to symbolize Russia’s disagreement with the decisions expected to be approved at the Chicago summit. They include the approval of the NATO-proposed BMD architecture based on the Phased Adaptive Approach, which Russia believes should be changed, and the announcement of the completion of the first stage of the creation of NATO’s BMD architecture without Russia’s involvement, again contrary to its objections. Besides, the absence of the Russian president in Chicago will come as a fresh reminder that Moscow does not accept these decisions and will continue to demand their review.

Why is Russia so intently focused on this obviously artificial problem? First, the actual likelihood that the Obama administration will implement its plans, especially regarding the issues that worry Russia most, remains unclear. Second, even if the BMD infrastructure is created in Europe (so far, it comprises a radar station in Turkey and an Aegis-class warship in the Eastern Mediterranean) it will not threaten Russian strategic nuclear forces.

And lastly, the real focal point of U.S. BMD policy and the deployment of the BMD architecture is not Europe but East Asia and Asia Pacific. The U.S. BMD policy and its military strategy as a whole is not directed against Russia but against China, as proved by the new national defense strategy unveiled in January 2012. Its goal is to limit China’s ability to prevent the United States from projecting its military power in East and Southeast Asia.

Russia’s persistent refusal to lay that artificial problem to rest can be explained by the importance of maintaining strategic parity with the United States and its ability to inflict unacceptable damage in a retaliatory nuclear strike. Strategic parity with the United States and Russia’s role in maintaining strategic stability in its traditional interpretation is what distinguishes Russia from the other power poles, including new ones, and what makes it a key player in big-time politics by definition. Clinging to the concepts of parity and mutual assured destruction, Russia considers any U.S. actions that could theoretically undermine them as a threat that must be either deterred (that is, prevented) or counterbalanced – even if these actions are not directed at Russia.

Minimal effect

This conclusion implies that there will be no impact of Russia’s refusal to attend the Chicago summit on its BMD talks with the United States. In fact, there can be no resolution of the BMD as long as the sides adhere to the philosophy of deterrence and strategic parity. Any agreement Moscow and Washington may reach starting in 2013, i.e. after elections, will be temporary and transient. The next administration will pursue its own BMD policy, and the issue will return to the U.S.-Russian agenda unchanged.

As for the possibility of an interim BMD agreement and the general atmosphere at the U.S.-Russian BMD talks, the cancellation of the NATO-Russia summit in Chicago will have no influence on them whatsoever.

First, the sides agreed late last year that the real talks on the issue would be resumed only in 2013, when political passions in U.S.-Russian relations will have subsided.

And second, they also agreed on the modality of their cooperation in this sphere, according to which an impasse in negotiations or a pause do not mean that the United States and Russia will immediately resume their confrontation and the arms race. Medvedev clearly made two points in his November 23 speech at the U.S.-Russian summit in Seoul.

The first is that Russia will discuss the BMD issue with the United States only until the antimissile infrastructure capable of threatening the Russian strategic nuclear forces is deployed in Europe. And second, Russia will take so-called military-technical response measures to evade BMD systems only if BMD infrastructure capable of threatening the Russian strategic nuclear forces appears in Europe.

In other words, proceeding from the U.S. plans the sides can safely continue their BMD talks at least until 2018-2020. The arms race will not start in Europe before or after that date, because the possibility that the Untied States will deploy BMD systems in Europe capable of threatening Russia’s strategic nuclear forces is very small.

This is why Russia and the United States have so calmly reacted to the cancellation of the NATO-Russia summit in Chicago. They will prepare to resume the BMD talks in 2013 and will address the issue proactively, as Barack Obama said at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. Moreover, the cancellation of the summit has not had a negative impact on the general tenor of U.S.-Russian relations and has even improved them a bit. By moving the G8 summit to Camp David, the U.S. administration has ensured a positive start for a new phase of its relations with Moscow and saved both sides from the need to talk about the BMD impasse. Russia and the United States have clearly moved closer on the issue of Syria and are strengthening cooperation in Afghanistan. The next issue on their agenda is the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Considering these developments, the cancellation of the NATO-Russia Council summit in Chicago has had a minuscule effect on U.S.-Russian relations.

One hopes that the wise decision of Moscow and Washington to prevent the BMD issue from hindering the improvement of their relations will ultimately help them to see the unimportance of their BMD deadlock and to focus instead on the issues that really matter. If they do, they will not have to cancel any more summits in the future.

The article is published on the site of Valdai Discussion Club on April 19, 2012