The NATO, U.S., and Russian Security Dilemma: A 21st Century Arms Race?

By Sarah Golden, Transatlantic Security Analyst

During NATO’s most recent summit, member states announced that NATO’s new missile defense system is in a phase of “interim capability.” According to NATO, the purpose of this defense system is to protect Western nations from potential nuclear threats originating from Iran and other states. Despite NATO’s assurance that the system’s purpose remains solely to counter threats from such nations, Russia continues to express concern regarding the proximity of the system to its borders.


Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s former envoy to NATO, told a German media outlet that NATO, and in particular the United States, is making a mockery of Russia and undermining its nuclear deterrent by placing interceptors in such strategic locations as Poland and Romania. As a result, Russia has threatened to attack the missile defense system if NATO continues to develop the sites without legally ensuring that the weapons will not be used against it. In an effort to show the West that Russia is serious about its threat, it successfully tested a new and faster ballistic missile prototype on May 23rd.


Many analysts have argued that this security dilemma could result in the initiation of a new arms race. In fact, we are already witnessing a three-legged race with NATO, Russia, and the “Axis of Evil” all running toward the finish line. The U.S. is not likely to halt the development of the missile defense system, which could in the worst case lead Russia to develop new missiles that subsequently would nullify the New START Treaty. Russia could also reinstate previous trade agreements with Iran, which would further complicate current debates between Iran and the West concerning Iranian weapons capabilities. Perhaps this arms race would not reach Cold War levels, and maybe it wouldn’t result in an actual attack on any nation or weapons facility. What can be said, however, is that this dilemma – left unaddressed – has the potential to introduce significant instability into the global security environment.


One potential long-term solution could be the expansion of the New START treaty. Currently, this treaty limits the number of strategic weapons held by the U.S. and Russia, but does not address short-range tactical weapons, which are more susceptible to theft from criminal organizations. Perhaps an adjustment to this treaty that would allow for more of a focus on reducing the number of tactical weapons, rather than strategic ones, would sooth Russia.


Other possibilities for compromise could include establishing stronger weapons trade agreements between NATO members and Russia. This would allow Russia to modernize its military and hedge against a rising China. Lastly, NATO could directly address Russia’s concerns regarding its deteriorating military by providing its troops with training. These concessions would not only increase NATO’s odds of assembling its missile defense system without interruption, but they would also solidify Russian relations with the West – to the benefit of all involved.

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