Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, April 2, 2001

Russia and Anti-Missile Defenses

by Alexander Pikayev, Carnegie Centre Moscow

The International Context

Anti-missile debates have been regularly coming to the surface during more than three decades, starting at least from the US great anti-ballistic missile (ABM) debates of the late 1960s. More recently, the discussions about strategic anti-missile deployments have coincided with fundamental changes in European and global security, triggered by developments of the first decade after the end of the Cold War. The circumstances were characterised by further consolidation of the US position as a leading global nation, whose position was enhanced even inside the Western alliance. European integration crossed some important qualitative lines, constituting maybe the basis for more rapid economic development of the European Union in coming decades, and its gradual transformation from a mainly geo-economic into a geo-political entity. This might lead to a reassessment of transatlantic relations, including future roles of NATO and its further enlargement, as well as its interaction with emerging security institutions in Europe.

On the other side of Eurasia, the rapid growth of China is increasingly questioning the credibility of the US-led alliances in the Western Pacific. Together with volatility across the Taiwan straight and likely Korean reunification, this could force Japan to reconsider its recent military self-restraint and promote its re-militarisation, if not nuclearisation. The southern part of the Eurasian continent – from the Mediterranean to Myanmar – is increasingly becoming an area of traditional geopolitical competition between growing local and outside powers. It witnesses the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery; fragmentation and radicalisation of the Islamic world.

Russia and other post-Soviet states emerged in the middle of these profound changes. In the 1990s, they survived unprecedented economic, political and military decline, which left them without any serious chance to re-establish the significance they enjoyed a decade ago. Moreover, at least some newly independent states have not finished their downturn, and face the real probability of further degradation. A further weakening of that part of the world might turn it into arena of geopolitical competition between neighbours with unpredictable consequences in terms of uncontrollable spread of remnants of the Soviet nuclear legacy, conventional arms, migration and crime. As a result, neighbouring entities could be forced to conduct hardly bearable burdens of peace-making amidst endless Eurasian steppes and forests.

Anti-Missile Defence and the International Order

Anti-missile defences might accelerate or even promote undesirable geopolitical trends. Well before actual deployments, the anti-missile debates have already complicated transatlantic relations in recent delicate times of redefining balances between the two sides of the ocean. Commitment to large-scale missile defences might reflect shifts occurring in the United States towards unilateralism – with an explosive combination of isolationist trends and a preoccupation with relations with the Americas, on the one hand, and unilateralist spasmodic interventionism overseas, on the other. This would destabilise the international arena, since the US involvement, when needed, would not be forthcoming, but might unexpectedly take place in other areas. If anti-missile defences were deployed, it could create a wrong perception of invulnerability from potential retaliation and thus take the pressure off decisions to intervene.

The unilateralism could target international legal regimes, particularly those dealing with non-proliferation and arms control. The ABM Treaty is a good example. Unsuccessful tests of missile interceptors during the Clinton administration demonstrated that the United States, very likely, possesses no available technology for anti-missile deployments on a scale justifying withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. The Treaty does not prohibit anti-missiles; it only restricts tests and deployments of strategic anti-ballistic missile defence systems. Within a decade development and testing of new systems could probably be made inside the Treaty restrictions, or under the umbrella of non-strategic missile defences.

Nevertheless, attacks on the ABM Treaty – well before its military substitute is ready – create concerns that the real aim of the debate is not giving up an obsolete agreement which complicates responding to urgent national security challenges, but to withdraw from the regime, that is hated for ideological reasons of near- religious character.

Together with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) rejection and problems with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) compliance, attacks on the ABM Treaty might reflect a broader desire to follow unilateralist actions internationally without taking into account existing international regimes and norms. This establishes precedents for other nations, which in their turn might decide to withdraw from regimes that limit their freedom of action. As a result, the world would become a much more dangerous place, where relations between the states would be determined not by international law, but by national interests and great powers games.

The weakening of the US alliances in the Western Pacific is sometimes mentioned as one of the primary reasons for the US anti-missiles deployments. Indeed, if protected, the United States would more willingly participate in defending their regional allies. However, there is uncertainty on how the leading East Asian nation would react to the US deployments. In recent years, China has possessed two or three dozen missiles capable hitting targets in North America. These numbers might be successfully intercepted by even an initially modest US anti-missile system with the necessary architecture. As a result, Beijing would be deprived of its minimum deterrence option, which it obtained in the early 1980s.

The Chinese could avoid that development if they slowly build-up their strategic nuclear forces to a level where they could saturate the American defences. That build-up might be quite significant. In order to maintain assured penetration even through limited defences with a hundred interceptors, China would need up to 200 strategic warheads deliverable to North American targets. In other words, Beijing may have to increase its minimum strategic forces ten-fold.

The Chinese nuclear build-up might trigger a nuclear chain reaction in Asia. India clearly links its nuclear ambitions with China, and would be tempted to follow Beijing's suit. Pakistan could hardly stay away from that arms race either. A Pakistani build-up might increase pressure on Iran, which has a difficult relationship with Islamabad. In the Western Pacific, facing a nuclear arms race between continental Asian powers, both Taiwan and Japan could feel themselves increasingly insecure and could be sorely tempted to change their non-nuclear status. Under certain circumstances, South Korea could even pre-empt them.

Russia's Dilemmas

For Russia, an increasingly unilateralist United States, erosion of existing international law, a nuclear build-up and proliferation in Asia represent considerable mid-term challenges. In that security environment, Moscow could hardly permit itself to maintain its recent modest rate of nuclear modernisation programme: in 1998-2000, only 26 new Topol M SS-27 ICBMs were delivered to their bases. Russia would have to keep sizeable deterrent force levels in order to feel secure in more nuclearised world.

Some existing arms control regimes significantly restrain Moscow's ability to maintain higher force levels. In particular, the START II prohibits ICBMs with multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Producing large numbers of single warhead missiles would be much more expensive than producing MIRVed ICBMs. This may stimulate Moscow to abandon those restrictions by both cooperative and unilateral measures. As another example, the INF Treaty prevents Russia from establishing an equal footing in an arms race with China, if the latter decided to initiate a build-up of its medium-range nuclear forces. China, as well as other emerging nuclear powers, are not parties to that Treaty, and – unlike Russia and the United States – are not limited by its restrictions. This complicates Russia's task to maintain balances in those classes of nuclear weapons, and gives a motivation to withdraw from that agreement. The US unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would provide a comfortable pretext for Moscow's reciprocal withdrawals from those and, probably, some other regimes.

Therefore, Russia – together with many other members of the international community – has every reason to be concerned by developments driving the US anti-missile commitments. At the same time, the Kremlin is not interested in confrontation and a nuclear arms race, and still needs to gain access to Western investment, markets and technology. That dualism led to disagreements inside Russia's establishment on how to react to the US anti-missile plans. The disagreements could be found in two important doctrinal documents adopted in 2000 – the National Security Concept and the Military Doctrine, signed by President Putin, respectively, on January 6 and April 21. While the National Security Concept stated that Russia would adopt arms control agreements in response to the changing international environment, the Military Doctrine, on the contrary, declared that Russia would fulfil existing arms control agreements. Abrogation of the ABM Treaty was especially mentioned in this context as a national security risk.

The hardliners think that Russia's resistance to changing the ABM Treaty could deliver a message to the United States that they cannot expect Moscow to compliantly follow Washington's zigzags, as it did under the Yeltsin administration. They argue that the tactic to agree to US demands in the area of the ABM/START could only force Russia to accept almost all Washington's requirements during the negotiations, while Moscow would find itself trapped with uncomfortable restrictions. That school also likely perceives that the US unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would facilitate Russia's withdrawal from other agreements that limit its freedom of manoeuvre.

Supporters of a more conciliatory approach believe that, if Washington suggests an attractive deal in the strategic arms reduction area - negotiated or unilateral- Moscow should agree to discuss new approaches to the ABM Treaty. Russia is interested in deep US strategic nuclear cuts below the level of 2,000 warheads. That would permit the Kremlin to maintain approximate numerical parity with the United States. Besides its psychological importance, that might be important diplomatically for gaining better deals in other areas. Moscow also wants to establish industrial cooperation with the US and EU defence industries, and obtain contracts for its cash-starved enterprises.

Advocates of a more cooperative line promote the idea of joint anti-missile defence (AMD) against non-strategic ballistic missiles (NSBMs). A provision for cooperating in tactical missile defences was included in the Russia-NATO Founding Act, signed in Paris in May 1997. Reportedly in late 1998, the Russian defence minister was on his way to Brussels with a proposal for cooperative Russian-NATO activities in the anti-missile area, but due to disagreements over Anglo-American air raids against Baghdad in December 1998, and the Kosovo operation which took place in March-June 1999, the plan was not tabled. It was during his visit to Italy in June 2000 that President Putin proposed for the first time joint anti-missile defence, but he did not specify details.

Finally, in February 2001 during the visit of Lord Robertson, Secretary-General of NATO, to Moscow, Russia delivered a more detailed proposal on European AMD against NSBMs. The fact that it was handed to NATO reflected the Kremlin's desire to alleviate possible US concerns that the proposal was purely aimed at widening cracks in transatlantic relations. The proposal was understandably limited to the non-strategic level, because the ABM/START limbo was yet to be resolved through the US-Russian bilateral dialogue. Indirectly, the abbreviation AMD against NSBMs – but not NSMD (non-strategic missile defence) hinted that Moscow was ready to give up NSBMs and proceed forward with AMD only.

The proposal contained a phased approach. Initially, the interested parties should define common missile threats. Then they would need to discuss how better to meet existing and emerging challenges, including an evaluation of non-military instruments for neutralising them. Only if it was decided that military tools were essential, the sides could start discussing potential architecture of the AMD and its armaments. For developing potential European AMD, Russia offered its research, development and testing facilities, as well as existing surface-to-air missiles such as the S-300 and S-400. As an option, mobile anti-missile launchers were mentioned in particular. Such weapons are needed for protecting rapid reaction troops to be deployed in regions of nuclear and missile proliferation.

Given the lack of perceived threat of direct missile and nuclear attack, the Western European nations were probably not the best audience for promoting anti-missile defence cooperation. However, that proposal could help to address some unsettled issues in Russian-Western relations, which lay outside the anti-missile framework. They include a lack of substance, positive agenda and institutions. The AMD dialogue might open doors to broader benefits. Western European industries could be interested in gaining access to Russian defence technology. And discussing mutual threat perceptions would help to add substance for those institutions where the AMD discussions will take place.