NATO Calm in Face of Russian Threat of Pre-Emptive Military Action

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NATO on Thursday responded coolly to a threat by Russia that it would use pre-emptive military force to destroy alliance antimissile systems in Europe should the missile defense buildup continue, the New York Times reported (see GSN, May 3).

The top-ranking Russian military officer on Wednesday warned, “a decision to use destructive force pre-emptively will be taken in if the situation worsens,” in reference to the United States’ ongoing efforts implement its “phased adaptive approach” for European missile defense.

NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, though, was not particularly disturbed by the threat, noting to journalists in Moscow, “I think a lot of the countermeasures described by Gen. [Nikolai]  Makarov were familiar ones, but I’d have to go back and do research. Clearly it is not something we welcome, by any means.”

Vershbow is in the Russian capital attending an international antimissile forum organized by the Russian Defense Ministry; Moscow hopes to convince the attendees from some 50 countries that it is justified in being concerned about the strategic implications of U.S. and NATO plans to field increasingly capable missile interceptors in Eastern Europe (Andrew Kramer, New York Times, May 3).

Others, though, reacted with incredulity to Makarov’s threat.

“He must have been drunk,” Stimson Center fellow Barry Blechman was quoted by theWashington Times as saying. “I hope the Russian political leadership takes him to task for it.”

“It’s remarkable,” said Regina University international relations expert James Ludes of Makarov’s threat. That the general “would make this kind of threat in a public forum is chilling” (Shaun Waterman, Washington Times, May 3).

Makarov hinted at what means Russia could use to neutralize the future NATO antimissile threat: “Science and technology have made such a big progress that it is possible to disable a huge number of missile defense elements without physically destroying them. These weapons are being developed in the Russian Federation,” Interfax reported (Interfax I, May 3).

Brussels and Washington maintain their envisioned ballistic missile shield is aimed at deterring a medium-range missile attack from Iran, however Moscow suspects the system would actually secretly be aimed at undermining its ICBMs.

In accordance with its phased adaptive approach, the Obama administration intends through 2020 to field Standard-Missile 3 interceptors in bases in Poland and Romania and on warships home ported in Spain. The Obama plan is to form the basis of a broader NATO effort to link up and augment individual member nations antimissile programs.

Vershbow said, “We think the system we are developing poses no threat to Russia, so the whole notion of retaliation or countermeasures has no foundation,” the New York Timesreported.

The Kremlin has previously warned it could deploy air-defense systems and short-range Iskander missiles to the Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave that borders Poland, and pull out of the New START arms control accord with the United States if a deal on missile defense is not reached.

The No. 2 NATO official said interceptors planned for fielding in Europe would not be able to destroy a Russian ICBM launched against the United States as it was a “question of science and geography.” He pointed out that a number of Russian analysts and specialists have reached the same conclusion.

But Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Andrew Kuchins said in a telephone interview with the Times the Russian military leadership was not “completely misguided” in its fears about the interceptors. “There is an element in the U.S. elite that does want complete invulnerability” (Andrew Kramer, New York Times).

Following the first day of the two-day antimissile conference, Makarov said, “We had an intense and frank exchange of opinions that confirmed the pressing character of missile defense problems. …The scope of problems we discussed is a complicated one and simple solutions to it are nowhere in sight,” ITAR-Tass reported.

NATO heads of state are set to hold a summit in May where an interim battlefield antimissile capability is to be declared and the future of the  missile shield discussed.

“We find it troublesome that new plans for the antiballistic missiles system may be adopted at a NATO summit in Chicago May 20, and yet we still believe in an opportunity to come to terms with our partners,” Makarov said.

“The European countries have grave concerns in the sphere, as they don’t want to see Europe turn into a hotbed of tensions once again,” according to Makarov.

The Russian General Staff chief said matters would come to a head in 2017 if a deal is not reached.  Under the third phase of the Obama plan, starting in 2018 next-generation SM-3 Block 2A interceptors with the ability to defeat short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles are to be deployed.

“We still have some time left and we’re obliged to find a solution to the problem,” Makarov said, continuing that he is slated in July to hold separate talks with his U.S. counterpart, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the head of the alliance’s military committee (ITAR-Tass I, May 3).

Makarov said Moscow sees the U.S. missile interceptor threat evolving over time to the point when it can “block all Russian ballistic missiles launched both from the Russian territory and from submarines in the ocean,” Interfax reported.

“We are saying that until about 2017 the creation of the missile defense system is not affecting Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, but with the third and fourth stages [of the U.S. phased adaptive approach] they will be posing a threat,” he continued (Interfax II, May 3).

The Obama administration has said repeatedly it will not accept any limitations on its plan for European missile defense. Makarov, though, said Russia is not interested in technical restrictions but a commitment that “possible interception areas for modern-day and future missile defense means must not cross the Russian border,” according to Interfax (Interfax III, May 3).

Even though intercontinental ballistic missiles travel faster than more limited-range missiles and the technical requirements for destroying them are not the same, Moscow believes U.S. interception technology in Europe might evolve to the point where it can destroy ICBMs, Tufts University international security expert Robert Pfaltzgraff said to the Washington Times. (Shaun Waterman, Washington Times).

The United States has struck deals with  Romania and Poland to host next-generation SM-3 beginning respectively around 2015 and 2018, according to previous reporting.

Makarov’s deputy, Valery Gerasimov, explained to conference attendees why Russia sees those interceptors as a danger to its strategic missile forces, Interfax reported.

“We can see that the trajectory of the missile threat from the south is passing above the operating zone of the third-stage missile defense system. Therefore, target interception is potentially impossible,” the deputy chief of General Staff said.

“When the potential is increased to the ability to intercept strategic missiles with a range of up to 11,000 kilometers [approximately 6,800 miles], that is the fourth stage of the missile defense system deployment, at such parameters of the destruction zone interception will be possible,” Gerasimov asserted.

The general-colonel said the military was not worried about the first and second phase interceptors due to be fielded in Romania but “it is obvious that when reaching the characteristics of the design planned for the fourth stage the Romanian base will be potentially capable to intercept Russian missiles deployed in our country’s European part” (Interfax IV, May 3).

Russian Space Defense Forces head Lt. Gen. Oleg Ostapenko warned that U.S. interceptors could additionally be used as “anti-satellite weapons,” RIA Novosti reported.

The planned fielding of U.S. sea- and land-based interceptors around the planet would give the United States the capability to destroy space platforms no matter where they are orbiting, he claimed.

“In this context we regard the creation of effective air and space defense systems as a key element of modern warfare,” the lieutenant general said (RIA Novosti I, May 3).

The Russian Defense Ministry’s Military Cooperation Department told conference participants the NATO missile shield could undermine China’s nuclear deterrent much faster than Russia’s, RIA Novosti reported.

“China’s nuclear potential will be ‘neutralized’ much sooner than Russia’s. China has a much more limited capability,” noted department head Sergei Koshelev (RIA Novosti II, May 3).

Beijing this week urged other countries to abandon their ballistic missile defense plans, stating they represent a threat to strategic stability (see GSN, April 30).

Despite the militaristic comments by senior Russian military officers, there is a growing belief in the Russian government that a compromise with Washington can be reached on its antimissile plans if U.S. President Obama wins the November presidential election, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A live microphone in March recorded Obama telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have greater “flexibility” to negotiate a missile defense deal after the November elections.

If Obama wins re-election, “I am sure we will reach an agreement that brings no harm to them or to our security,” an unidentified high-ranking Russian official said to an official news service on Thursday. “It it’s someone else” elected U.S. head of state, “surely, it will be difficult.”

The presumed Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has castigated Obama for his flexibility remark and accused him of being soft on U.S. national security matters, particularly with regards to Russia (see GSN, March 28).

Medvedev in provided remarks read on Thursday to conference attendees said he felt certain both sides “are capable of finding a formula that would allow us to avoid any division into winners and losers. Medvedev is to hand over the presidency to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday (Richard Boudreaux, Wall Street Journal, May 3).