NATO-Russia Disputes and Cooperation on Missile Defense

Nicolai Sokov
May 14, 2012

NATO Chicago Summit Graphic

NATO Chicago Summit Graphic

When NATO leaders met almost two years ago in Lisbon, the possibilities for cooperation with Russia on missile defense looked promising. The NATO-Russian Council, with the participation of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, specifically “agreed on joint ballistic missile threat assessment and to continue dialogue in this area.” The Council also agreed to “resume Theatre Missile Defense Cooperation” and “to develop a comprehensive Joint Analysis of the future framework for missile defense cooperation.” (1)

By contrast, current Russian President Vladimir Putin has let it be known that he will not go to the 2012 NATO Summit being held in Chicago May 20-21, and it is unlikely that there will be a NATO-Russia summit coinciding with this meeting. The failure of the two sides to make significant progress on missile defense since the Lisbon Summit is the main reason for Putin’s failure to attend. Behind the shift lie changes in the political landscape in Washington and Moscow as well as longstanding strategic concerns.

The mood on U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation in the run-up to the Chicago Summit stands in stark contrast to the promise that dominated the first two years of the Obama administration. In September 2009, the White House modified earlier plans and adopted the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), which was more clearly focused on the future missile threat from Iran. Specifically, the George W. Bush administration’s plans to deploy an interceptor site in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic were scrapped, as well as the ground-based interceptors (GBI), which was supposed to be deployed in Poland. Instead, the new system is built around a sea-based SM-3 interceptor and its ground-based version while deployment areas have been shifted south — to Romania and Turkey. The new system is intended to provide a quicker response to the emerging shorter-range missile threats from Iran than the previous design, which emphasized capability to counter potential longer-range Iranian missile capability, which is estimated to emerge in a significantly more distant future.

Deployment of the system is intended to proceed in four stages. In particular, Phase II (scheduled for completion in 2015) would feature an SM Block IB interceptor deployed on both land and sea against short- and medium-range missiles. During the third phase, to be completed by 2018, the system is slated to feature a further enhancement, the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, which will give the system the capability to intercept intermediate-range missiles. Phase IV is supposed to feature SM-3 Block IIB interceptor, which should be able to cope with not only medium- and intermediate-range missiles, but also with longer range missiles, including ICBMs.

Obama’s decision to curtail missile defense systems in Central Europe had a positive effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship as the initial stages of the new approach no longer foresaw capability to target Russian ICBMs in addition to potential Iranian ones; this dual capability was the main reason Russia had cited in opposing the missile defense plans of the previous administration. These developments, along with Obama’s other efforts to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations, including the signing of the New START Treaty in 2010, then set the stage for the positive NATO-Russia announcements at the Lisbon Summit.

Since Lisbon, however, two areas of disagreement have held up missile defense cooperation between NATO and Russia. The first concerns the kind of cooperation envisioned; the other the Russian insistence on establishing limits on the emerging U.S. and NATO missile defense system.

In Lisbon, Medvedev proposed a “sectoral” approach to the defense of Europe. According to his proposal, Russia would be responsible for the defense of Europe from missile launches from the South-East (effectively, from Iran) so that NATO would not need to create a missile defense in the Eastern and South-Eastern sector (i.e., one that could be theoretically used against Russia.) Close integration of the NATO and the Russian missile defense systems was supposed to help provide a stable foundation for long-term cooperation between Russia and the Alliance.

The proposal was rebuffed by NATO members for two reasons. First, NATO members refused to delegate defense of their territory to a non-member, especially a non-member whom some alliance members (particularly in Eastern and Central Europe) continue to regard as a potential threat. Second, and more pertinently, Russia simply did not have the assets to back its proposal: Russia is still in the early stage of developing the kinds of missile defense systems that would be required for that task and they would not be ready for operational deployment for years. In less than a year, therefore, Moscow effectively abandoned that proposal (although officially it remains on the books.)

However, the second issue—the Russian desire for limits on the projected missile defense system–continues to dominate the U.S./NATO-Russian dialogue (or, rather, quarrel). At root is the Russian concern that the projected system might, in the future, acquire the capability to intercept Russian strategic missiles and thus undermine the situation of mutual deterrence that Moscow regards as the foundation of its security. While Obama’s decision has somewhat alleviated the tension that had dominated the U.S.-Russian discourse during the George W. Bush administration, Russian concerns now center around Phase IV of the current program, set to begin in 2018, which will feature SM-3 Block IIB interceptors that are intended to intercept Iranian strategic missiles, but could, in theory, also intercept Russian ICBMs. The prospect of the United States moving ships equipped with interceptors in the Baltic Sea and to the north of Russian territory (i.e., on the path of Russian missiles launched toward the United States) appears particularly troubling to Moscow, especially since such deployment would take little time to implement. To prevent such a development, Moscow wants to establish legally binding limits on the future system: although Moscow has not precisely defined the parameters of such limits, these clearly include the number and the deployment areas of interceptors and some have also indicated the desirability of limits on the technical features of interceptors.

In November 2011, Medvedev issued a special statement threatening “appropriate measures” if the United States did not provide legally binding guarantees. Although on the surface the list of measures that pertain to enhancement of both early warning systems and offensive strategic weapons looks impressive, a close look reveals that he simply rehashed the programs that were already underway, some for many years. Rather than a threat, this statement appeared to be a signal to the United States and NATO that Russia had decided to hold off the dialogue on missile defense until after presidential elections in the United States. (2)

The United States and NATO, however, are only prepared to give political guarantees that the future system is not aimed at countering Russian capabilities. Anything further than that has been ruled out by domestic politics and in particular blocked by Republicans in U.S. Congress whose numbers were boosted substantially in the November 2010 midterm elections. The Republican Party holds a sufficient number of seats in the Senate to block any treaty that includes concessions on missile defense; the Republican majority in the House could also block certain kinds of executive agreements. The depth of Republican opposition was made clear during the Senate debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) (3) in late 2010 when the resolution of ratification prohibited limits on missile defense. Reportedly, the administration had also entertained the possibility of sharing classified data on the existing and future interceptors to demonstrate that they will not be able to intercept Russian strategic missiles. However such sharing has not gone forward after Congress insisted on 60 days notice before any such communication, and leading lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of a key House Armed Services subcommittee, indicated they will oppose such sharing. (4)

Russia has rejected the offer of a political commitment with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov bluntly stating that “words are obviously important and we hear these words, but, as one (past) president of the United States said, ‘trust, but verify’.” Raising the stakes even further, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said that if an agreement is not reached Russia might begin to implement the “military-technical measures” to counter the projected defense capability, which Medvedev had outlined in November 2011. The inauguration of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia did not change the Russian approach. Among the first decrees he signed on the day of inauguration, he instructed the government to pursue legally binding limits on the U.S. missile defense system.

After several years of debates, both at the bilateral U.S.-Russia and multilateral NATO-Russia levels, the deadlock has devolved to pure politics. Technical issues, which were discussed in the past, have been either resolved or lost relevance: at stake is now only one issue, the form of guarantees the United States and NATO are willing to give Russia. For reasons of domestic politics, the Russian leadership cannot — at least for the moment — accept guarantees that are not legally binding while the United States and NATO — at least for the moment — cannot provide guarantees that are more binding than a general political commitment. Barring an unlikely change in domestic politics on either side, the controversy will probably remain unresolved until after deployment of Phase IV of the U.S.-NATO system begins by the end of this decade (or if it is delayed once again due to challenges of developing new interceptors) and its capabilities and the scale of deployment becomes clearer. After all, as it has happened many times with discussion of missile defense in the past, the controversy is once again about a hypothetical capability of a projected system that has not yet materialized.


(1) NATO-Russia Council Joint Statement, November 20, 2010,
(2) See CNS analysis of that statement in Nikolai Sokov, “Medvedev’s Statement on Missile Defense Might Mean Russia Postpones Further Dialogue until 2013,” December 2, 2011,
(3) Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “New START Treaty Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification,” December 22, 2010, For more information see Nikolai Sokov and Miles Pomper, “New START Ratification: A Bittersweet Success,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, December 22, 2010,
(4) See Bill Gertz, “Tauscher to Offer Data,” Washington Times, November 16, 2011; Sara Scorcher, “Pentagon’s Budget Will Contain $200M Plug for Polish Missile Defense: Kirk,” National Journal, Jan 18, 2012; and Jim Wolf, “Exclusive: US Dangles Secret Data for Russia Missile Shield Approval,” Reuters, March 13, 2012.

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