Steven StarrThe Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently published an article by Pavel Podvig, “Point of Distraction”, which categorizes the ongoing US/NATO deployment of an integrated missile defense system in Western, Eastern and Southeastern Europe as an “overblown distraction” to U.S.-Russian relations. Given that Podvig’s first reference is to recent public threats made by Russia’s most senior military commander to launch military attacks against US/NATO missile defense bases, and that these threats have also been publicly made by Russian President Medvedev, Podvig’s assertions seem very abstracted from current political realities.

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.

In this context, missile defense is much more than a “distraction”, it is rather the focal point of Russian discontent. It is the straw that is breaking the Russian camel’s back. US scientists, like Theodore Postol and Yousaf Butt have explained the technological basis of Russian concerns, which unfortunately US political leaders continue to foolishly deny, as if the Russians were not capable of understanding such things.

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.

This concern was recently voiced in a letter to David Krieger from Russian Minister Lavrov, in which Lavrov agreed with the suggestions made in the “Open Letter on NATO Missile Defense Plans and the Increased Risk of Nuclear War.” Lavrov states, “One cannot help agreeing to a conclusion that deployment of missile defense system at the very borders of Russia as well as upbuilding system’s capabilities increase the chance of any conventional military confrontation might promptly turn into a nuclear war.”

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.