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Disagreements over Missile Defense Threaten to Undermine new START Treaty

Missile Defense LaunchRussia sees the planned US missile defense system as a potential threat to its nuclear forces and may reconsider its participation in the recently ratified strategic arms (START) treaty, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said on February 9. The treaty, the centerpiece of the Obama Administration's efforts to reset ties with Russia, went into force last week and limits each country to 1,550 nuclear weapons, well below the current ceiling of 2,200. Although the treaty does not prevent the US from building missile defenses, Russia has warned that it reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty if there is a "qualitative and quantitative" buildup in US missile defense capability. NATO approved a plan last fall for a US-led antiballistic missile system and invited Russia to join. Moscow, however, has not yet accepted the offer.

In a recent letter to the US Senate, President Obama promised to continue work on antimissile defenses and specifically singled the nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran. He emphasized that such a system would not threaten the strategic balance with Russia nor provide a justification for Moscow's withdrawal from the treaty. The White House has insisted that missile defense cooperation with Russia, both bilaterally and within the NATO-Russia Council, will enhance regional security. But Washington has also rejected constraints or limits on US missile defense plans and stated that Russia would not have a veto over US and NATO work on such a system.

The Kremlin has argued that an antimissile shield could weaken Russia's deterrence potential, a threat repeated by Russian defense Minister Antonov earlier this week. But some experts believe that Moscow's real concern is that NATO might one day turn a theatre missile defense into an offensive system that could attack Russia. As a result, Russia has sought a say with the US and NATO in how a system would be used -- Ryabkov warned on Monday that Russia would not cooperate with NATO on missile defenses unless it was treated as a full partner. Additionally, Moscow has proposed a sectoral missile defense plan wherein NATO would be responsible for defending against missiles targeting Russia and Russia would intercept missiles that travel over its territory bound for Europe.

NATO experts, meanwhile, are wary of giving Russia a role in determining which countries pose a threat. Russia and NATO already have different assessments, for example, of the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program. NATO experts balk, moreover, at the sectoral proposal because Western experts have little confidence in Russia's antiquated missile defense program, which at present is limited to single installation in the Moscow region. The Russian system's mission, to protect the country's leaders for the 30 minutes need to reach strategic command centers, is incompatible with NATO intentions for any ABM system the alliance might hope to develop.

More fundamentally at issue, as NATO expert Andrew Monaghan has recently noted, is the fact that the two sides define differently the goal of the "indivisibility of security" which is supposed to underlie any partnership. Although security issues such as missile defense rank high on the sides' common agenda, these issues are so far neither "mutual" in terms of defining priorities nor "joint" in how cooperation is planned and enacted. Moscow sees missile defense as no less than a test "of the sincerity of the partnership and indivisibility of security, "according to Foreign Minister Lavrov. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's representative at NATO, has said that work on missile defense so far "cannot be called cooperation," "not even a marriage of convenience," but "living separately in different apartments with different entrances and addresses."

William Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, arrived in Moscow on February 9 Under Secretary for a two day visit to review both bilateral and international issues. The two sides' differences over missile defense will no doubt receive considerable attention. Already Russia has linked resolution of the ABM issue to a high White House priority: negotiations on reducing the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons , with Moscow indicating that it is not ready to schedule such talks. A tough editorial in Pravda Online this week went so far as to accuse the US of "slowly but surely" squeezing the "nuclear club" out of Russia's "weakening hands." Cooler Kremlin hands no doubt disagree with that harsh misinterpretation of Washington's intentions. But with the disagreement over missile defenses rooted so deeply in divergent views of global security, it seems unlikely that there will be much progress anytime soon in building upon the new START Treaty, a document that seemed so promising, so recently.

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