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Tensions Mount Over Missile Defense

  • Peter Fedynsky
  • Jela Franceschi

American and Russian generals, diplomats and politicians recently exchanged words over a U.S. proposal to deploy a new missile defense system in Europe. Moscow is concerned that the system would target Russia. Washington says it is in response to the emerging missile threat from countries like Iran or North Korea and terrorist networks.

The proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe would be located in Poland and the Czech Republic. This would place American missiles near borders of the former Soviet Union.

Viewing that as a threat, the commander of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, General Nikolai Solovtsov, recently issued a blunt warning. He says if the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic allow the American missiles to be located on their territories, Russia will turn them into potential targets.

Speaking in Germany last month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called General Solovtsov's comments "unfortunate." She added, "I think everybody understands that with a growing Iranian missile threat, which is quite pronounced, that there need to be ways to deal with that and that we're talking about long lead times to be able to have a defensive counter to offensive missile threats."

U.S. officials point out that the limited capability of the planned missile defense system poses no threat to Russia's strategic deterrence.

Handling Future Threats

The Director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, says the system would consist of 10 interceptor missiles in Europe, 40 in Alaska, and four in California.

"It takes time to build these. It's going to take us three to four years to build out any kind of capability. So we can't look at what's happening today and say, 'That's what we need to base our decision on.' We need to look at what's happening today and project to see what may be the threat for the future. And that's very important in missile defense, because it takes time to build these capabilities," says Obering.

Furthermore, many U.S. officials and experts note that the interceptors being proposed for Europe could be overwhelmed easily by Russia's large arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

John Hulsman, a fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations based in Bonn, adds "I don't think anybody thinks that this can allow the United States to have a first strike capability on the Russians. Nobody thinks that the missile defense system that we are deploying can stop the former Soviet onslaught of missiles if there were a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States. What this does is to stop states down the road, such as Iran, from attacking Europe, to stop terrorist groups and others in the Middle East who might fire one or two missiles at Europe."

A Point of Contention

While there is near universal agreement among analysts that NATO's defense policy should not be subject to Moscow's approval, some note that Russia's criticism is partly based on a commitment NATO made in 1997.

"Ten years ago, when NATO renegotiated the so-called NATO-Russia Founding Act prior to the first NATO enlargement, NATO incorporated a unilateral statement crafted clearly to affect attitudes in Russia," notes Robert Hunter, Senior Advisor at the RAND Corporation and U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the Clinton administration.

"And it stated that NATO would not deploy substantial military forces on a permanent basis in any of the countries that were about to join NATO. Russia could be forgiven for saying that putting ballistic missiles in any of these countries would be a violation of what NATO had promised not to do," says Hunter.

Ambassador Hunter contends that NATO's best course is to continue strengthening ties between the West and Russia. "The answer, I think, is to work more vigorously on buttressing the strategic relationship with Russia," says Hunter. "We all need Russia to come positively into the outside world and not to be in a position where it will nurse grudges and grievances for the future. One of the basic concepts that the first President Bush [George H. W. Bush] pursued was not to give the Russians the feeling, like the Germans after World War I, that they were being kicked hard while they were down. And at this point, to do something in Central Europe just because it can be done, I don't think is very smart."

But Hunter says new NATO members like Poland and the Czech Republic should not be expected to shape their national defense policies under the Kremlin's pressure.

According to analyst John Hulsman, Moscow's objection to the proposed U.S. missile defense system is reminiscent of Cold War thinking. "Very few people are worried about the United States ceasing to exist because of a nuclear exchange. We don't expect Russia or China to attack us. On the other hand, the idea that a city of the United States is attacked by nuclear weapons is probably greater than during the Cold War because of the advent of radical Islam, al-Qaida and rogue states with weak command and control structures acquiring nuclear weapons," says Hulsman.

Hulsman adds that by offering to host the planned missile defense system for Europe, Poland and the Czech Republic have joined hands with the United States, which has taken the lead in addressing the major security threat of the post-Cold War period, namely the spread of nuclear weapons to countries and groups that shouldn't have them.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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