Will nuclear weapons remain a key instrument to reinforce American national security? The dawning of a new American leadership has aroused much curiosity within the international community: how will President Obama respond to the planned American ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe? This analysis seeks to answer the following questions concerning President Obama’s position on the ballistic missile defense (BMD) system and prospects on future Russo-American relations:

  • How has the BMD project redefined Russo-American relations?
  • Should this plan go ahead, what implications would it have on the international community?
  • How can President Obama maintain global stability?


The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was followed by Eastern Europe’s hasty departure from Moscow’s periphery. To quickly integrate these former Soviet satellites under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) security umbrella, the Alliance initiated the Partnership-for-Peace program, which served as a stepping stone towards full NATO membership. This was seen as an aggressive encroachment into Russia’s immediate periphery and drastically tipped Eastern Europe’s delicate power balance. With clashing regional security interests and some 3,000 Russian and American nuclear weapons remaining on high (hair-trigger) alert, it has become ever so critical to revisit or replace major nonproliferation accords: the 1972 Antiballistic Treaty (from which President Bush withdrew in 2001), 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (suspended by Russia in 2007), 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (expires in December 2009), and 2002 Treaty of Moscow (scheduled to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles to 1,700 to 2,200 per country by 2012). Still, existing weaknesses of these accords paralyze the international community from eliminating nuclear weapons altogether: reduction cannot be reliably verified and the lack of a requirement to dismantle the weapons allows the U.S. and Russia to simply keep the weapons in storage.

On the American side, while President Bill Clinton was hesitant about NATO’s eastward expansion, his successor’s defense policies considerably deteriorated Russo-American relations. In particular, President George W. Bush’s strong push of the BMD system in Eastern Europe has rekindled a dangerous Cold War mentality of distrust and rivalry. Despite fervent objections from the Russian side and European public leaders, NATO members meeting at the April 2008 summit reluctantly endorsed Washington’s controversial plan to install the BMD system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Even as U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) experts questioned its effectiveness, the Bush administration claimed that the missile shield’s “purely defensive capabilities” would allow the U.S. to respond to any potential attack on its chief ally, Europe, from “dangerous and unpredictable regimes” like Iran. President Bush explained in 2007, “Instead of spending decades trying to develop a perfect shield, we decided to begin deploying missile defense capabilities as soon as the technology was proven ready — and then build on that foundation by adding new capabilities as they matured.”1 Poland plans to host ten interceptor missiles in exchange for significant U.S. military assistance. The Czech Republic plans to host a related tracking radar system designed to identify and shoot down missiles. Tests and developments on the project are already costing $10 billion annually, the Pentagon’s largest procurement program.2

As the BMD project progresses, Moscow has warned of retaliation. President Dmitrii Medvedev chose to postpone his State of the Union speech until the day after the U.S. presidential election to criticize America’s missile shield plan. In recent months, he has intensified the testing and mass production of advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles specifically designed to penetrate antiballistic shields such as the Bulava and Russian RS-24.3 More relevant is a proposal to install mobile Iskander missiles in Kalingrad, Russia’s southern enclave bordering Poland. Clearly, these weapons will be capable of destroying America’s proposed interceptor missiles in Poland. Furthermore, Medvedev plans to utilize radio equipment to intercept Washington’s planned defense system. Seeking to compromise, the Bush administration offered to allow Russian observers at the planned BMD sites, but President Medvedev swiftly rejected the offer.
Again disregarding Russia’s opposition to the project, on December 5, 2008, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency tested its “largest, most complex” $120-150 million long-range ballistic missiles from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California. This was the first remote launching of an expansively coordinated experimental project incorporating multiple systems from various branches of the armed forces. While the agency immediately declared success, claiming that “all its components performed as designed,” there were several notable deficiencies associated with the test. This missile test actually failed to “release countermeasures designed to try to confuse the interceptor missile like decoys or chaff to throw off an incoming interceptor.”4 Since these tests began in 2001, many have failed or been scaled back because of technical problems. Adding to these are the unpredictability of missile attacks and unreliability of a missile shield. This leads us to ask: how reliable are the Bush administration and MDA’s “successful” missile tests and are they worth an annual cost of $10 billion?5 Costs of the United States’ missile defense program in the past 25 years have accrued to at least $150 billion.6


Russia remains committed to a “reactive” foreign policy. With the Kalingrad plan, President Medvedev aims to “neutralize – if necessary – the [American] anti-missile system”. Furthermore, he is confident in Russian technological superiority that would counter any incoming missile attack. He recently asserted that “the Americans will never be able to implement this scenario, because Russian strategic nuclear forces, including the Strategic Missile Forces, will be capable of delivering a strike of retribution under any course of developments.” To take this a step further, President Medvedev announced in early December a comprehensive upgrade of Russia’s missile program. New developments would include the RS-24 missiles specifically designed to counter space-based missile attacks as well as penetrate any missile shield.

What explains Russia’s intensified reaction? Eastern Europe is strategically positioned at the heart of continental Europe. Washington’s increasingly intimate relations with Poland and the Czech Republic is seen as an intrusion into Russia’s “near-abroad” and traditional sphere of influence. Iran recently announced that it produced and tested missiles capable of hitting southern Europe, but experts remain skeptical as there is not much concrete evidence to support this claim. More notably, the ballistic missile plan explicitly targets space-based military weaponry, and with Russia as the only country with technological capability to develop such advanced weaponry, one could assume that the missile shield targets Russia.

After European leaders heavily criticized Russia’s proposed missile plan in Kalingrad, both the Russian political and military leadership requested renewed Russo-U.S. relations and invited the new American leadership to engage in deeper dialogue and cooperation on European security. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has expressed renewed hope in cooperating with his new American counterpart, suggesting that new U.S. leadership would unfold a fresh chapter in Russo-American relations, “We very much hope that these changes will be positive. We are now seeing these positive signals.” Obama’s cautious stance on the ballistic missile defense plan has attracted much attention from the Russian leadership; he explains, “If we want the world to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia must lead by example… We cannot and should not accept the threat of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch.”7 While the Russian leadership anxiously awaits concrete actions, Prime Minister Medvedev also states, “If it’s not just words, if they are transformed into practical policy, we will respond accordingly…we will not do anything until America does the first step.”8

Obama, throughout his presidential campaign, persistently reiterated two primary global concerns: nuclear terrorist attacks and nuclear weapons proliferation by rogue states. He envisioned the U.S. taking up global leadership to denuclearize to allow for “a world in which there are no nuclear weapons” and promised more commitment and funding towards nuclear nonproliferation, which he calls “the most urgent threat to the security of America and the world.” To move toward this nuclear-free world vision, the Obama administration hopes to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty aimed at reducing nuclear weapons and materials by limiting nuclear development, testing, and proliferation. In addition, the Obama administration has outlined plans to cooperate with Russia to remove thousands of nuclear weapons from operational readiness, or hair-trigger alert, to avoid the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch. To allow for an actual chance for a nuclear-free world, the President-elect staunchly believes that Russo-American cooperation is integral to leading a global effort.

According to Obama, in the immediate future, any American unilateral nuclear disarmament would prove futile and enormously dangerous to American national security. 9 His foreign policy statement says, “As long as nuclear weapons exist, we’ll retain a strong nuclear deterrent.”10 President Obama singles out “dangerous” regimes, notably Iran and Korea, whose nuclear missile developments could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe. Because of this, he acknowledges that a missile defense system would still serve as a vital security shield to strategic America’s European partners. However, the President urges against any “premature” deployment of the missile system but would support the missile plan only after “vigorous testing” has proven the system’s operational effectiveness. In the long run, he warns that such a plan would certainly produce highly undesirable implications on the entire international security regime with the American public bearing enormous financial costs for an experimental project whose capability remains far from able to guarantee Americans and its allies security from missile attacks.

The claimed “success” of the December 5, 2008, test has produced serious implications for the progression of the BMD plan. Not only has it consolidated public support of the proposed missile shield, but it has already forced the new President into an awkward position and could effectively undermine his commitment to nuclear disarmament. To immediately withdraw the BMD plan, the President-elect would be criticized for appeasing to the Russian demands as well as neglecting to provide sustained support to NATO allies; some fear that such a move would drastically undermine American global leadership. This issue is especially delicate, so the Obama administration will have to develop strategic ways to cooperate with Russia.

Future Outlook

Should President Obama move forward with the BMD project:

  • The only real winners are Boeing and other major contractors from the military industrial industry, which are reaping enormous profits at the cost of American taxpayers’ money.
  • The current international structure would become dangerously destabilized. This would antagonize Russia, a crucial participant in global nonproliferation and disarmament, and retard two decades of moderate cooperation on nuclear issues.
  • Continued proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile defense would spur a new Cold War arms race with more sophisticated weaponry with the devastating possibility of a nuclear launch. This would prompt other countries to continue or start their own nuclear programs with nuclear weapons becoming strategic instruments of political leverage in international relations.
  • American unilateral security engagement would undermine European security. Instead of deterring, Washington’s active engagement with Eastern Europe would trigger a new arms race with Russia and others. Continental Europe could become a new target for attack by the United States’ adversaries.

If President Obama stops the BMD project, the implications are as follows:

  • Much-needed resources could be diverted towards more strategic security measures to safeguard American and global security.
  • Reinforce American leadership and commitment to international security and nonproliferation through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and European Union.
  • President Obama could gain full support from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has actively pushed for more funding for the State Department to substantially expand its diplomatic corps, cautious NATO expansion and engagement in the former Soviet satellites, and limited reliance on military defense.

Conclusion When did nuclear deterrence ever deter? Paradoxically, America’s deeply ingrained confidence in nuclear deterrence has only accelerated the arms race. The national missile defense project has consistently exacerbated the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and pushed the international community to the brink of a dangerous arms race. The Bush administration’s “new deterrence” policy put at great risk the delicate power balance of the global community.11 The new presidency presents America a unique opportunity to reassess the missile defense plan. Russia’s top political and military leadership, Medvedev, Putin, and General Nikolai Marakov, have already extended their offer of engagement. President Obama has immense power to pursue wise, pragmatic, and strategic global leadership; these are some recommended strategies that he could take:

  1. Initiate regular, high-level dialogue to foster mutual understanding and cooperation with Russia.
  2. Revisit arms control treaties to make necessary changes to address newly emerging dangers of nuclear weaponry. This includes placing a limitation on nuclear stockpiles and the development and production of particularly dangerous weapons of mass destruction. To ensure their effectiveness, the U.S. and Russia would need to engage other nuclear powers, particularly Pakistan, India, and China.
  3. The U.S. could pursue a more multilateral strategy and engage with Moscow through the NATO-Russia Council. This would level the playing field and provide a more transparent forum for the engagement of all 26 members of NATO, in particular Poland and the Czech Republic.
  4. Collaborate with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to develop more strategic, pragmatic, capable, and cost-effective defense strategies which emphasize diplomacy and are detached from the military-industrial complex.


1. Bush, George W. (2007, October). Discussion of Global War on Terror. Speech presented at National Defense University, Washington, DC.

2. Gordon, M. (May 2006). “U.S. Seeks antimissile shield to block Iran.” International Herald Tribune.

3. Faulconbridge, G. (Dec 2008). “Russia Starts Production of New Ballistic Missiles.” Reuters.

4. “Pentagon Says It Destroyed Missile In Test of Air Shield” (Dec 2008). Associated Press.

5. “Obama’s challenge at the Pentagon” (Nov 2008). International Herald Tribune.

6. “How to Pay for a 21st-century Military” (Dec 2008). New York Times.

7. “The Candidates and Nuclear Nonproliferation”. Council on Foreign Affairs. <www.cfr.org>.

8. Isachenkov, V. (Dec 2008). “Russia’s leaders optimistic about ties with US”. Huffington Post.

9. White House Website <www.whitehouse.gov>.

10. White House Website. <www.whitehouse.gov>.

11. Colby, E. (Apr 2008). RAND Corporation. <www.rand.org>.

Loan C. Pham is a Nuclear Age Peace Foundation intern and is pursuing a Masters degree in Global Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.