“It could not be called cooperation. It’s not even a marriage of convenience. It’s like living separately in different apartments, with different entrances and addresses.”[1]

The NATO-Russia Council’s (NRC) initiation of a joint study on the future framework for cooperation on missile defense[2] constitutes Russia’s consent for technical cooperation on a shared defense architecture. An actual agreement on missile defense cooperation is expected to be reached at the NRC Defense Ministers’ meeting in June 2011. So far, the parties have failed to reach common ground on a cooperative framework. This article examines the strategic and technical differences that impede the conclusion of a joint missile defense architecture in Europe.

START treatyNATO envisages future missile defense cooperation with Russia in the format of “two independent but coordinated systems”.[3] NATO’s Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) is a tactical multi-level missile defense capability intended to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles threats against NATO-deployed forces.[4] The Alliance’s Lisbon Summit (in November 2010) resulted in a decision to develop an indivisible territorial missile defense capability. President Obama’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) in Europe was adopted as a national contribution to this effort. On 27 January 2011, NATO completed the first handover of an interim theater ballistic missile defense capability. The subsequent trial of the system demonstrated NATO’s initial ability (although limited) for ballistic missile defense planning and information exchange with member states.[5]

Collaboration with Russia on missile defense is expected to proceed with the exchange of information and potential synergy between NATO’s capability and a missile defense system operated by Russia. Moscow’s vision is for a full-fledged missile defense architecture in Europe. Russia’s proposal entails cooperating in a “sectoral” format in which parties will be responsible for intercepting ballistic missiles coming from specifically assigned geographic areas. The system will incorporate a joint NATO-Russia threat assessment and decision making mechanism.[6]

Contentious Issues

Under NATO’s proposal, Russia will be expected to develop its own ballistic missile defense architecture. Russia’s acquisition of an effective missile defense capability may prove to be problematic, since it does not currently possess a missile defense capacity anywhere close to the complex system achieved by the United States. The development of a system incorporating early-warning, air and space defense is expected by 2020.[7] The technical specification and positioning of the future capability are not clear, although it is expected to bear similarity to President Obama’s flexible and movable missile defense assets. The question is whether Moscow will be able to achieve an operable and effective missile defense capability within the desired timeframe even with an enhanced defense budget (estimated to be more than 2.9% of GDP in 2011).

Second, Russia has demanded the status of “equal” partner as a prerequisite for participating in a potential NATO-Russia missile defense architecture.[8] This request is a result of fears that an exchange of information between Russia and NATO will restrain Russia’s strategic nuclear potential. However, the Alliance is faced with technical and political considerations that prevent it from agreeing on a full-fledged cooperation.

Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, collective defense is the sole responsibility of NATO Member states. The arrangement does not envision a legal responsibility for partner states to participate in collective defense. Hence, information exchange and possible synchronization of two independent systems is the only workable solution from NATO’s perspective. Furthermore, a cooperation framework that restricts in any way NATO’s ALTBMD initiative — and U.S PAA as the major national contribution to it — will surely fail to be ratified before the U.S. Senate. The Senate has already demonstrated its uneasiness with Russia’s potential interference with U.S. ballistic missile defense under the New START.

Challenges with New START

Implementing the New START is likely to dominate the political arena throughout 2011, particularly as it precedes presidential elections in both states. The treaty was put through a lengthy and highly politicized ratification process that put U.S. ballistic missile defense in the spotlight. The U.S. Congress endorsed the agreement n its ‘lame duck’ session on 22 December 2010 with a commitment to continue its missile defense initiative unrestrictedly. On 25 January 2011, Russia’s Duma ratified the New START with the reservation that Russia could withdraw from the arrangement should the advancement of U.S. missile defense pose a threat to its nuclear deterrent.

Having lodged the instruments of ratification on February 5, 2010, entry into force of the Treaty has marked a major success in President Obama’s landmark policy against nuclear proliferation. However, following the mid-term elections of 2010, the President can no longer afford to face a Republican dominated legislature with any matter that threatens U.S. ballistic missile defense potential. Similarly, President Medvedev is unlikely to take any chances by diluting Russia’s participation in NATO’s theater missile defense; The Kremlin will only agree to cooperate with the Alliance as an equal player while preserving its strategic interests.

Missile defense is also a highly politicized issue in Russia. Moscow is concerned with the later stages of the PAA (2015 – 2020), which will see the installation of land-based SM-3 interceptor sites in Poland and Romania. The deployment of U.S. missile defense assets in Europe is perceived as a threat to Russia’s second-strike capability. Russia has responded by claiming to have developed a new generation of warheads that could potentially overcome America’s missile defense shield.[9] Despite U.S. reassurance that the interceptors in Europe are meant to preempt ballistic missile strikes from Iran, and that they are technically incapable of interfering with Russia’s nuclear potential, the threat rhetoric has generally been adopted by the political realm in Russia.[10] Hence, the strategic costs associated with U.S. PAA to achieve missile defense is expected to be manipulated by Russian politicians in the months preceding presidential elections. This will make it particularly difficult for President Medvedev to bargain the terms of Russia’s engagement in NATO’s territorial missile defense.

The advancement of President Obama’s missile defense program can put additional pressure on Medvedev’s domestic agenda. Successful tests were carried out in late January, marking technological progress in Obama’s PAA. The program’s adherence to its tight timeline may prove alarming to Russia and encourage it to seek alternative means of pressuring the U.S. and NATO to agree on a more favorable framework for cooperative missile defense.