Russia and US Missile Defence

Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.

Missile defence is prudent: while there may be no realised threats at present, there may well be in a decade and, since any system will take time to emplace, starting today makes sense. Moscow knows that it could also be on the target list.

From Moscow’s perspective, involvement in a defence scheme with NATO has difficulties. The first is trust. The West likes to think that it is honourable and open but Moscow is not so convinced. NATO expansion took place despite a promise made to Gorbachev and it was soon evident that it was an expansion to include anyone but Russia. Distrust was hardened by the Kosovo war which Moscow perceived as NATO arrogating to itself the right to decide where borders should be. The “coloured revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia (do we still count the “Tulip Revolution”?) intensified the distrust. And the West’s uncritical swallowing of Saakashvili’s story in the Ossetia war made things worse.

But events have moved on: NATO expansion appears to be over, NATO no longer boasts about successes in Kosovo, the “coloured revolutions” have failed and Saakashvili is no longer the democratic darling. (I have argued elsewhere that we are seeing a “third turn” in the West’s view of Russia; But Moscow is no longer, as perhaps it was in the early 1990s, prepared to take NATO at its word.

The second problem involves the “higher nonsense” of nuclear calculations. I say “nonsense” because, even if a defence system could stop 90% of Russia’s warheads, the 10% that got through would constitute by far the greatest disaster that the USA had ever suffered. Even a “small” nuclear exchange would be an unimaginable catastrophe for each, no matter which “won”. Nonetheless, people in the nuclear business do make these calculations of first-strikes, secure second-strikes and all the rest. I suspect, however, that Moscow’s nuclear arsenal has as much to do with prestige as anything else. Many in Moscow are still frightened by the possibility that Russia could become an insignificant country helplessly watching other mightier powers make decisions. Being the second nuclear power is some assurance that it will not be ignored.

Moscow is also aware that for a significant sector of Western opinion – shrinking I believe, but still influential – Russia is the eternal enemy. For these people, President Obama’s decision to stop the plan for missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic was a betrayal and a sell-out to Moscow (despite the fact that previously they had argued that the deployments had nothing to do with Russia). (See

For these reasons Moscow is cautious and sceptical: NATO’s assurances cannot be taken at face value; Russia’s theoretical “nuclear deterrence” could be weakened; the significant anti-Russia group (and Moscow probably takes it more seriously than it deserves) will always work to twist any intentions against Moscow’s interests.

Nonetheless, given the threat posed to NATO and Russia by what used to be called “rogue states” with small numbers of nuclear weapons and missiles, a common defence makes sense.

A compromise between the two positions is not hard to imagine: Russian and NATO sectors as separate but integrated at a central headquarters. Similar solutions have been found before – NORAD, for example – and with good will, something like that could square the circle. An effective defence could be built and Russians would be assured that it was not pointed at them.

When one considers how far this issue has evolved – all previous Russian efforts to get involved having been rejected – some optimism is warranted.