What is striking about Podvig’s analysis is that he omits any reference to the fact that US missile defense is being deployed in Europe via NATO. In fact, the word NATO does not appear anywhere in the article, and thus the entire issue of NATO is avoided. This is unfortunate and misleading, because Russia has always viewed the NATO military alliance, which was set up to “keep the Russians out”, as a real threat to Russian security. BMD and its deployment by NATO are inseparable issues from any realistic political point of view.
Podvig subsequently fails to address a concern that has been voiced by Russian Generals and recognized by their counterparts in America, that is, the Russian fear that the US/NATO European missile defense system night be used as a “mop-up” system against Russian strategic nuclear forces that survived a US disarming first-strike. I note that General Cartwright addressed this fear directly, as reported by Arms Control Today:
“Gen. Cartwright and his coauthors go after the root cause of the problem: Moscow, they say, is not just concerned that the European missile system might be capable of intercepting a few Russian missiles. Rather, Russian leaders are worried about the U.S. capability to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack and then use strategic missile interceptors planned for deployment in 2020 (the SM-3 IIB) and thereafter to deny a Russian retaliatory strike.”
While Russian political leaders are thus far reluctant to openly discuss the threat of a US nuclear first strike, it clearly is not taboo for Russian generals to do so. They have some cause to worry, since both nations continue to maintain 1700 strategic nuclear weapons at launch-ready status. But their fears are exacerbated because Russia has also watched NATO and US bases surround their borders, while NATO has become actively involved in many international military conflicts, and presses to add Georgia and Ukraine as member states.
The deployment of a highly integrated and layered missile defense system also adds real strength to NATO’s conventional capabilities. Russian war planners certainly fear NATO’s overwhelming conventional military strength – following the NATO intervention in Kosovo, it was such fears that led Russia to develop its military doctrine of “nuclear de-escalation”.
This is where the danger of military conflict between the US and Russia lies. The expansion of NATO to Russian borders will surely provide opportunities for the clash of NATO and Russian troops. That such a conflict could quickly go nuclear is made even more probable by the forward-based nuclear weapons of NATO and standard Russian operating procedures that plan for the preemptive use of their tactical nuclear weapons against overwhelming NATO conventional force.
The deployment of US/NATO European missile defense is hardly a “distraction” to U.S.-Russian relations and it is a mistake to categorize it as such. Analysts who focus solely on the technical capabilities of missile defense, while ignoring the larger picture of missile defense as an integral part of NATO, are missing the forest for the trees. To continue to dismiss Russian concerns on these issues as trivial is a serious political mistake on the part of both the US and its NATO allies.
Steven Starr is a Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Associate and a Senior Scientist with Physicians for Social Responsibility. His website is www.nuclearfamine.org.