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Russia Could Go Ballistic on American Missile Defense

We’re all in trouble if Russia follows up on its threat to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in reaction to America's attempt to construct missile defense bases in Eastern Europe.
 
 
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In October 1986 what was supposed to be merely a preliminary meeting between the leaders of the world's two superpowers, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, turned into a historic summit that brought humankind to the brink of total nuclear disarmament. While the Reykjavik, Iceland, summit broke up without this dramatic disarmament threshold being crossed (the Americans and Soviets had reached a contingent agreement to eliminate all nuclear ballistic missiles within 10 years, but the deal fell apart when the United States insisted on being able to deploy its Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense system (SDI, or better known as "Star Wars").

While the world missed an opportunity to walk away from the nuclear abyss altogether, the meeting was not completely for naught. Little more than a year later, from the foundation of trust and respect forged in Reykjavik, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, completely eliminating two entire classes of nuclear missiles (intermediate and short range) and putting into play stringent on-site inspection verification protocols that forever transformed the way in which the world would view arms control and disarmament.

I remember those days well. As an officer in the Marine Corps, I was a member of the original team assigned to the newly created On-Site Inspection Agency, tasked with implementing the INF treaty. In June of 1988, a scant six months after the ink had dried on the INF Treaty document, I had the honor of participating in the first-ever inspection carried out under the INF Treaty as a member of the advance party dispatched to a Soviet missile production facility outside the city of Votkinsk. For the next two years I helped forge a new chapter in arms control history, overseeing the installation of a monitoring facility outside the gates of a factory that had produced SS-12 and SS-20 intermediate-range missiles, and was still producing the modern road-mobile SS-25 intercontinental missile.

In addition to making sure that the Soviets lived up to their end of the bargain (the Soviets had a similar monitoring operation at work in Magna, Utah, where U.S. Pershing II missiles had been produced), our operation in Votkinsk and elsewhere helped facilitate a deeper, broader understanding between two superpowers who had, prior to the INF Treaty, been plotting the destruction of one another. Comprehension of a shared system of human values and ideals tore down barriers of distrust and ignorance of the Cold War era. The INF Treaty led to even greater disarmament initiatives, namely the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), where deep cuts were made in the long-range arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union (and, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia and the other nuclear-armed republics).

When President George W. Bush, in June 2001, looked into the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and got "a sense of his (Putin's) soul," he should have looked deeper. Although the two world leaders got along quite well on a personal level, their initial meeting was strained by Russian concerns over the expansion of NATO and continuing U.S. efforts to develop a missile defense shield. The signing of the "Treaty of Moscow" in June 2003 likewise should have been a landmark date in President Bush's growing understanding of what makes the Russian leader tick. While President Bush spoke of an agreement "founded on mutual respect and a common commitment to a more secure world," the critical areas of Russian concern (again, the expansion of NATO and the U.S. missile defense system) were addressed only in the theoretical, with there being a distinct need for the United States to deliver demonstrable steps that would reassure the Russians (and Putin) that the United States boded no ill towards their nation.

Today, Putin's "soul" is dark indeed. Having expended considerable political capital in reaching out to Bush in hopes of genuinely improving the relations between Russia and the United States, Putin has not only failed to generate any viable movement in reaching agreements of substance, but has watched Russia's security position be whittled away by American "unilateralism." From the very start of the Putin-Bush relationship, the Russians had strongly cautioned against such unilateral tendencies. The American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the expansion of NATO up to the borders of Russia in 2004 all severely tested the Russian leader's patience and credibility. The strong-handed U.S.-led approach toward confronting Iran in 2005-2006 strained the U.S.-Russian relationship to the breaking point. But it was the announcement by the United States in October 2006 that it would construct a major missile defense base in either Poland or the Czech Republic that apparently pushed the Russians over the edge.

Putin had tolerated the Bush administration's decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, noting that while it wasn't a sound decision, it was one which in his mind posed no direct threat to Russia. But his temerity in the face of American unilateralism and NATO expansion had left him in a precarious position in Moscow. The new U.S. initiative represents everything the Russians had feared: the United States marching inexorably toward the complete nullification of Russia as a world power. This American-centric approach was unacceptable to the inner circles of Russian leadership. Awash in a growing sea of oil revenue, the Russians had for some time been quietly rebuilding their once vast military industrial infrastructure. A few years ago the Russians successfully tested a new road-mobile ICBM, the SS-27 M "Topol," which incorporated performance features designed to defeat the U.S. missile defense system's operational parameters. Now, with the United States poised to construct a missile defense umbrella over an expanded NATO membership that laps at the very borders of Mother Russia, Putin has had enough.

Earlier this month, in a speech before the Munich Security Conference, Putin condemned America's drive toward the creation of what he termed a "uni-polar world." In such a world, Putin argued, the United States sought the creation of "one single center of power, one single center of force and one single master." He went on to note that "... the United States has overstepped its borders in all spheres -- economic, political and humanitarian, and has imposed itself on other states," and that this represented a "disaster." Most observers brushed off Putin's strong remarks as being unconstructive, with few fearing anything more than strong language coming from the Russians. But this time the Russian reaction appears to go well beyond simple rhetoric. Invoking the same rational employed by the United States when it withdrew from the ABM Treaty, the Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, recently called the INF Treaty a "relic of the Cold War," while the chief of the Russian general staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, stated that it would be in Russian interests to withdraw from the INF Treaty altogether.

Any Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty would be a disaster for Europe, NATO, global security and, something members of Congress and the American public should note, the United States. From its very inception, missile defense has been played up by American unilateralists as the "cure all" for genuine security, being cited again and again as the proper response to the ballistic missile threats of Russia, China, Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The reality is much different. Missile Defense has always had a Maginot Line-like quality to it, the technologies encompassed always being decades old before they can be fielded. Since intercepting a missile is much more difficult than launching one, the technology implementation cycle for delivery systems is always tighter than for interception systems, meaning that a missile defense system will never be able to catch up to the threat, especially if the threat is derived from a power such as Russia. If Russia withdraws from the INF Treaty, the United States and NATO will soon be confronted by entirely new generations of advanced short- and intermediate-range missiles which will once again place the cities of Europe beneath an umbrella of potential nuclear holocaust.

I once had the opportunity to serve my country, and the world, by helping eliminate a class of nuclear weapons that destabilized the security of America, the former Soviet Union and all of Europe. The precedent set, both in terms of disarmament and verifiable arms control agreements, set the stage for conventional forces reductions, the elimination of WMD in Iraq, and the expansion of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, among others. Thanks to the policies of the Bush administration, these advances are about to be completely eliminated in the name of American unilateralism. One of the greatest lessons to be learned from the ground-breaking disarmament agreement that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed nearly 20 years ago was that we lived in a multilateral world, where multilateral problems required multilateral solutions.

While the INF Treaty was a bilateral agreement, it established a precedent for far-reaching multilateral disarmament agreements involving the entire world. In this day and age of global terror, if there ever was a need for the kind of security mechanisms represented by the INF Treaty, it is now. Far from being a "relic of the Cold War," the INF Treaty represents the very foundation of a new world order funded on the principles of verifiable multilateral security. If the Bush administration continues to pursue its reckless policies of unilateral security, and if Russia follows up on its threat to withdraw from the INF Treaty, then the world will be a much more dangerous place for us all.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1990 as a weapons inspector implementing the INF Treaty and in Iraq from 1991 to 1998 as a weapons inspector overseeing the disarmament of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He is the author of "Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change," published by Nation Books in October 2006.

 
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