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Russia's Plan to Save the Earth

Missile Defense Control Room
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Russian media last week reported that President Dmitry Medvedev has signed off on a novel strategy to break the deadlock in Russia's talks with Washington and NATO on missile defense cooperation. The strategy, proposed by Russian Ambassador to NATO and Medvedev's Special Envoy for Missile Defense Dmitry Rogozin, envisions a jointly operated Russian-U.S. space defense system to defend the earth from an asteroid threat and, by default, from rogue states' long-range ballistic missiles. Is Rogozin's "Star Wars" initiative likely to break the stalemate on Russia-NATO missile defense? Why is the Kremlin coming up with such exotic ideas? How would the likely death of the missile defense cooperation venture impact the rest of the "reset" agenda? The proposal, which has yet to be presented to U.S. negotiators, has already been ridiculed in the Russian media as an unrealistic, Hollywood-inspired fantasy ("Armageddon" comes closest). Some commentators described it as a plan to score PR points for the Kremlin, as talks between Russia, NATO and the United States on building a cooperative missile defense system in Europe are likely to founder.

Indeed these talks have recently hit a dead end, as the architect of American policy toward Russia, Michael McFaul, told the Senate hearings at his nomination for Ambassador to Russia. The talks have stalemated over Russia's demands for a legally binding agreement between Russia and NATO that would set clear technical limits on anti-missile technology (the number and the location of the deployed interceptors, as well as limits on their allowed velocity).

The Obama administration, knowing that such limitations would not fly with the Republicans in Congress, balked at the Russian demands and even refused to sign a non-binding "political statement" at the Obama-Medvedev bilateral meeting at Deauville, France, last May.

In recent weeks, Washington has come up with alternative ideas to assuage Russian concerns, such as allowing Russian observation missions at the upcoming U.S. missile defense tests to verify that American interceptors are technically incapable of shooting down Russian strategic missiles, or setting up a joint missile defense threat assessment and data aggregation center. Moscow, however, has been cool to these overtures. Both sides have also indicated that they would pursue their plans to deploy missile defenses and countermeasures against them if an agreement is not concluded.

With Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency and Obama's dimming reelection prospects, the future of the U.S.-Russian "reset" is nebulous, which could only make reaching a deal on missile defense harder.

Is Rogozin's "Star Wars" initiative likely to break the stalemate on Russia-NATO missile defense? Is it simply a PR trick to cover the inevitable collapse of the missile defense cooperation talks between Russia and NATO? Is the idea of "defending the earth" from the asteroid threat technically feasible, and does it have any relevance to missile defense designed to counter limited strikes from medium-range ballistic missiles, not comets? Why does the Kremlin come up with such exotic ideas instead of working to build a cooperative relationship with Washington from the bottom up, by taking U.S. offers of limited but practical cooperation seriously? How would the likely death of the missile defense cooperation venture impact the rest of the "reset" agenda? Would President Vladimir Putin be more open or hostile toward missile defense cooperation with Washington, and could president Obama be in a position to deliver on this part of the "reset?"

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, DC

Rogozin's "Star Wars" initiative certainly has PR elements in it. However, taking into account the mood on Capitol Hill and the probable return of the Republicans to the White House, one can hardly expect any reasonable progress on a more substantive joint Russia-NATO or Russia ­ United States missile defense shield. So why not try this approach, and then slowly build up to more practical applications?

At this time the missile defense issue is one of the most difficult stumbling blocks on the way to a broader U.S. ­ Russian cooperation agenda. On the one hand, all sides understand that they have to find some way to show progress in negotiations. On the other, leftovers of deep mistrust from the Cold War days plus strong anti-Russian sentiments on Capitol Hill make it extremely difficult to find a compromise.

Just this week at the Heritage Foundation event "The Risks of the Reset: Why Washington Must Watch Its Step with Moscow," one speaker after another stated that there is no reason why America should share its sensitive technologies with Russia. This sounded a little bit ironic, since none other than President Ronald Reagan, whom both Republicans and Democrats often call one of the greatest presidents of all time, stated many times that he is willing to share such technologies even with the Soviet Union.

Perhaps for Reagan it was also a PR trick, but Rogozin's proposal is no better and no worse. Moscow may take slight consolation in observing that the White House's position on these issues is more pragmatic than that of the Congress, which continues to make trouble and has a single digit approval rating.

Both sides earlier said that they hoped an agreement could be reached in time for the NATO summit in the United States in May, and if this does not happen, the efforts to build on recent improvements in ties between the former Cold War foes will be undermined. This is aggravated by Russia's uncertainty about what U.S. policy will be like after the November 2012 presidential elections.

Recently a Pentagon official said that the United States had invited Russia to use its own radars and other sensors to monitor one or more U.S. missile interceptor flight tests, but Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made it clear that the offer fell far short of Moscow's calls for a role in planning a missile shield and of binding guarantees that the system would not weaken Russia. "We are being invited to monitor the implementation of a plan that we see as creating a risk to our forces of deterrence," Lavrov told reporters. "It would be better to first collectively create a missile defense architecture that would definitely be aimed outside of Europe and would not create threats for anyone inside Europe ­ and only then to start putting this system in place and inviting each side to monitor one another," he said.

One positive development occurred when the chief U.S. negotiator on missile defense, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, stated that the United States was prepared to offer written assurances that the system being built was not directed against Russia, but was not prepared to provide legally binding commitments. However, Moscow keeps insisting that only legally binding guarantees would suffice.

Some observers already call the situation a "kinder, gentler Cold War," as Russia and the United States lock horns over missile defense. So, if it takes a PR trick to avoid a full scale Cold War, why not?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

There is a real danger from several asteroids in trajectories very near our planet that could materialize within the next 40 years. Given the scale of the danger and the unprecedented complexity of the required defense against such a collision, the Russian initiative in this matter looks very real, serious and not to be dismissed out of political animosity.

Should an asteroid strike the earth (and such events have happened repeatedly in the past), humanity and its civilization could be extinguished, like the dinosaurs were 65 million years ago. The fact that filmmakers used the asteroid danger to earth as a subject for motion pictures does not make this threat less substantial.

So the Russian proposal is realistic.

Of course, given that the United States relies substantially on Russian launch vehicles for its own space programs, one may wonder what the American contribution to a project to deflect or destroy an earth-bound asteroid would be­ such an endeavor would depend very heavily on powerful and reliable long range rockets.

As far as the American ABM deployments are concerned, it is of note that this program is by all appearances non-negotiable to the United States, and there will be no room for peer-level collaboration with any other country. There are many reasons, objective and psychological, for this American attitude. One would think that Russian policymakers, politicians and the general public would have recognized this situation after so many years of obvious American disregard for Russian presentations on this subject.

Russians who seem to think that American policymakers facing Russia are always right and the Kremlin is always wrong have developed a myth that minimizes the significance to Russia of the intended American ABM to be deployed in New Europe. This system will destabilize the nuclear weapons parity which has been the basis of nuclear peace since the 1950s ­ the ugly, but ultimately effective arithmetic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). According to MAD, initiation of a nuclear exchange is unthinkable, because the aggressor will experience devastating retaliation. However, an ABM system of the kind that is proposed for deployment works to diminish Russia's retaliatory ability in response to a first strike. And while verbal promises are made that no U.S. first strike is contemplated (however, everyone knows that every country has a military plan for every possible scenario) one cannot be so sanguine about the future. An ABM system has the major flaw of favoring a very false sense of safety, which may lead a less sophisticated future leadership to very rash actions.

Russia, of course, bitterly remembers how verbal promises not to expand NATO eastward were broken almost as soon as they were articulated.

However, the ABM calculations of American hawks are flawed because the modern nuclear community is multi-polar and includes countries like China, Pakistan, India and several others, which are near-nuclear. In the event of a nuclear exchange between America and Russia, whoever was to emerge victorious would have a severely reduced nuclear deterrent and would then be vulnerable to one or more of the abovementioned nuclear powers. The proposed ABM system is an archaic concept designed for a world that did not exist even when president Reagan fell in love with the cinematic oversimplification of a "Star Wars" ABM system.

The only foreign cheerleaders for this venture seem to be politicians in New Europe who expect to obtain increased political importance (and probably funding) from the United States as part of the deployment.

Is this self-aggrandizement for New Europe useful to America, and worth further spoiling its relations with Russia? Someone in Washington seems to think so.

Russia, Nuclear Issues, Missile Defense - Russian News - Russia - Johnson's Russia List

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