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Too Dicey a Proposition

By Mitch Yoshida, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


While NATO could benefit from Russian cooperation on missile defense, the potential cost of collaboration is currently too high. The Obama administration, which has already started to implement a missile defense plan to shield Europe from Iran’s emerging nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, intends to introduce increasingly advanced missiles into the system over the next decade. Russian cooperation would, at the very least, benefit NATO by short-circuiting another arms race. At the most, it would extend missile defense coverage to Russia and afford Europe better protection as Iranian missiles bound for the region would likely pass over Russian territory.

At this week’s meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, Russia expressed concern that the proposed system would undermine its nuclear deterrent. Russian officials and experts are particularly anxious about the missiles that the U.S. plans to start deploying in 2018. In response, Russia is seeking either joint control over the system or two independent systems that would not overlap; both proposals would grant it an effective veto over the use of NATO’s missile defense capabilities.

But the Russian objection has been widely refuted as the scale and quality of the system will fall far short of what’s needed to neutralize its nuclear arsenal.  Some argue that the inability of both sides to come to an agreement actually stems from political constraints imposed by the upcoming U.S. and Russian presidential elections. A defense bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, which stipulates that the Obama administration may not use funds to provide Russia with missile defense technology, indicates that the issue could become a political hot potato.

Yet reaching a NATO-Russia agreement on missile defense will still be difficult after the elections. Even if Russia drops its demand for virtual veto power over the missile defense system, its ties to Iran could end up costing NATO dearly. The more modest forms of collaboration that have been proposed, such as information sharing, would allow NATO to track Iranian missiles that pass through Russian airspace. But if Russia passes technical details on NATO’s missile defense system to Iran, even this level of cooperation would be too costly for NATO.

As NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated a few days ago, “NATO cannot outsource to non-members collective defense obligations which bind its members.” Doing so would risk transforming NATO into a collective security organization akin to the League of Nations. This isn’t to say that NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense should never happen, but for now it’s too dicey a proposition.


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