TCS Daily

The Missile Shield Gap?

By Dominic Basulto - December 31, 2002 12:00 AM

Somewhat surprisingly, President Bushs announcement that the U.S. was planning to begin deployment of a limited missile defense system in 2004 has drawn only muted criticism from Russia. In large part, the Russian government already understood that the construction of a U.S. missile shield was a fait accompli - even dire warnings of another nuclear arms race would not be enough to dissuade the Bush administration. After a sometimes rancorous two-year period in which it strenuously objected to the abrogation of the 1972 ABM Treaty and warned of a new destabilizing period in international relations, Russia appears willing (for now) to go along with the U.S. decision. Has Russia learned to stop worrying and love the shield?

Until the escalation of the conflict in Chechnya, Russia was more afraid of a rogue superpower than a rogue terrorist state. After 50 years in which Russia and the U.S. were the worlds only superpowers, Russia understandably feared the new Pax Americana, in which Russia would be relegated to a second-tier military power with limited say in international affairs. The creation of a new global security architecture by the U.S., in which NATO expanded its borders to former Soviet client states in Eastern Europe and the U.S. deployed its military forces across the world to new hot spots such as Serbia, certainly did little to quell Russian fears. The U.S. decision to abrogate the 1972 ABM Treaty was also a crushing psychological blow, since it would fundamentally threaten Russian nuclear parity with the U.S. and undermine the key strategic underpinnings of the Cold War. Russia found itself in an awkward position, in which it was helpless to stop American strategic hegemony.

This now outdated view of a rogue superpower, however, naturally presupposed that the strategic interests of Russia and the U.S. would always be shaped by Cold War concerns. In this context, NATO enlargement, the abrogation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, and U.S. plans to construct a National Missile Defense (NMD) obviously were construed as elements of a common threat by Russian military planners. That is, until the appearance of an even greater threat-- the rise of fanatical Islamic elements in states such as Afghanistan and semi-autonomous regions such as Chechnya. Suddenly, the issue of Chechnya was seen within the broader context of a worldwide terrorist virus. The terrorist attack on a Moscow theater in October was incontrovertible proof that Russia would be unable to ignore the very real threat of rogue terrorist cells (so-called bandit formations) within its very borders. In a nightmare scenario, these rogue Chechen terrorists would gain access to weapons of mass destruction.

In addition to this fundamental strategic reorientation, there is another key factor in the recent Russian acceptance of a limited U.S. national missile defense. Quite simply, Russia does not have the economic resources to compete head-to-head with the U.S. Missile shield gap, or no missile shield gap, Russia is unable and unwilling to spend $60 billion or more to construct a missile shield. In the period from 2000-2002, Russia entertained the notion of partnering with the Chinese to build a theater missile defense system for Asia. At the same time, Russian officials met with NATO representatives to discuss the creation of a mobile missile shield for Europe and areas of Russia. Instead of a missile gap, Russia labored under the notion of a missile shield gap and rushed to find potential partners in both Europe and Asia. Moreover, Russia touted its own S-500 missile defense system.

While the Russian economy continues to revive, thanks in large part to a boost in oil exports, it is too fragile to support another large-scale military build-up, whether offensive or defensive. It is perhaps one of the hardest-learned lessons of the Cold War: too many resources diverted to military capabilities can choke an economy. Theres an interesting line from the Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that hammers home this point: The Russian ambassador explains to the U.S. president why the Russians decided to build the ultimate nuclear deterrent: - the Doomsday machine:
There were those of us who fought against it. But in the end, we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time, our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our Doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we'd been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a Doomsday gap...Our source was the New York Times.
In other words, it is ultimately counter-productive to worry about a missile shield gap, a Doomsday gap, or a mineshaft gap. Rogue states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea recognize this - as long as they can build enough nuclear (or biological) weapons to overwhelm a U.S. missile defense system, they can neutralize the possibility of a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear strike. Moreover, the presence of enough weapons of mass destruction in these rogue states would seemingly rule out any conventional military response as well; if the U.S. threatened military escalation, states such as North Korea would be able to counter with the threat of a more lethal nuclear response.

Interestingly enough, an essay (Why Russians Fear Missile Defense) that appeared in the Washington Post less than 30 days before the events of 9/11 recognized exactly this point. According to this essay, Russians feared missile defense for a simple reason: the threat of U.S. nuclear unilateralism would create the pretext for U.S.-initiated military involvement in regions such as Chechnya. In short, the Russian side argued that the United States needs missile defense so it will be free to enter into a possible conflict without fear of being threatened by nuclear retaliation. Once the U.S. had a shield, the Russians argued, it would be able to intervene anywhere in the world, without fear of reprisal.

In the post-9/11 world, though, Russia is no longer the enemy. More importantly, Russia has won tacit approval for its military polices in Chechnya as the result of renewed fears about Islamic fundamentalism. As long as Russia knows that its nuclear warheads can overwhelm any ground-based missile shield, it does not have to worry about a missile shield gap. It still considers itself one of the untouchable nuclear states. In short, Russia has learned to stop worrying and love the shield.

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