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The Russian-NATO dispute on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) has gone on for nearly a decade, ever since the United States offered to contribute to European defences against the prospective threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. Objections from Russian politicians certainly raised a few eyebrows. For example, Vladimir Putin, then president, repeatedly stated from June 2007 onward that the X-band AN/TPY-2 BMD radar, which the US had been planning to deploy on the hills of Brdy, a town 65 kilometres southwest of Prague in the Czech Republic, was actually designed not to defend Europe against ballistic missiles, but to spy against Russia. Putin objected strongly, pointing out the Czech-based radar would effectively enable the US to ‘control all Russia[n] airspace as far as to the Ural Mountains’. Such a statement is debatable; radio waves of the wavelength that the US intended to use propagate along straight lines only – which means that, given the curvature of the Earth, any X-band radar looking from the Czech Republic towards the Ural Mountains would be unable to see anything under 111 kilometres, even at zero elevation, thereby limiting any ability to ‘control Russian airspace’.
Putin argued that if NATO and the US really wanted to defend against Iranian missiles then any radar and corresponding interceptors ought to be deployed much further south – in Turkey and Romania, for example. Threats were even articulated that Russian Iskander short-range ballistic missiles might be deployed closer to the borders of NATO member states, neutralising BMD deployments in the Czech Republic and Poland.
The autumn of 2011 brought news on the progress of the latest incarnation of US European BMD policy – the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). On 13 September 2011, Turkey and the US signed the agreement within the EPAA framework to deploy AN/TPY-2 radar at the Kürecik military base in Malatya province, eastern Turkey. On the same day Romania also signed an agreement to allow the deployment of the Aegis Ashore BMD interceptor complex in its territory. Two days later, the 2008 US-Polish agreement covering deployments of another Aegis Ashore complex – this time in Poland at the Redzikowo military base near Slupsk – also came into effect, whilst in early October Spain announced it was prepared to host four US Aegis-BMD ships at the Rota naval base.
This geographical shift in the deployment of BMD in Europe, to the southeast of the continent, should have fitted perfectly with Russian wishes. In fact, Russian territory will be shielded from this system of radar complexes by the Caucasus, meaning that its security will not be affected by these recent agreements. So, has this helped to alleviate Russian concerns?
Well, not exactly. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, raised the issue of BMD once again at the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2011, demanding legal guarantees that the system would not be aimed against Russia’s interests and would not undermine the country’s strategic stability, a move resembling that of the Soviet Union’s overreaction to the Pershing II and cruise missiles deployments in the early 1980s.
The Short-lived Threat of the EPW
In the late 1970s, the US launched its nuclear Earth Penetrator Warhead (EPW) programme. Pershing II missiles were originally intended as a delivery mechanism for earth-penetrating warheads with a W86 designation – extremely effective weapons which could have been used to destroy Soviet political and military command and control underground bunkers. The Pershing II missile’s range meant that, had it been deployed in Europe, it could have reached its targets six to eight minutes after launch, scarcely allowing time for the Soviet Union to implement emergency contingencies. Once disclosed by Soviet intelligence, the information on the EPW programme was quickly made known to the Soviet leadership.
The intended target of the Pershing II later changed: to hinder an offensive undertaken by the Warsaw Pact, the missile would be used tactically to target the second echelons of tank troops advancing from the east. Because Pershing II had become a long-range system designed to meet NATO requirements, the EPW programme could no longer be justified and the W86 EPW was cancelled by the DoD in the FY1982 US defence budget process. By 1983, when Pershing II missiles began arriving in Europe, they were armed with ‘ordinary’ W85 warheads and lacked any capability to threaten Soviet bunkers.
The Soviet leader of the time, Yuri Andropov – a former Soviet KGB chief of fifteen years – mistrusted claims that the Pershing II’s target had been changed, considering it disinformation designed to conceal plans for a decapitating attack. The Soviet Union launched a propaganda attack of its own on US European missile deployments, as well as deploying its own intermediate- and shorter-range Temp-S/SS-22 and Oka/SS-23 missiles (the latter a direct predecessor of Iskander). It also dramatically increased deployment of its own short-flight-time, submarine-based missiles in the seas adjacent to the US coastline, aiming to pose a comparable threat to US security, and invested heavily in modernising the BMD systems around Moscow.
In the Shadow of the Cold War
And the bad news is that Russia’s current political leadership still appears to think it lives in a ‘Cold War world’, including Putin who, as a former KGB officer, considers Andropov his most respected teacher. Indeed, one of the major features of Putin’s policies is that he distrusts any information obtained through any channel except the intelligence community. There are indications that Russian intelligence services have taken full advantage of this government tilt towards anti-Americanism and have been misleading the Russian political establishment. They gave Putin exactly what he wanted: proof of America’s ‘malicious plans’ against Russia. For many, the idea that US BMD systems deployed in Europe would carry nuclear warheads instead of ‘hit-to-kill’ interceptors has been repeated too frequently in the Russian media and political discourse for it to be simple rumour and hearsay.
Indeed, it has long been a Soviet and then Russian practice to use air-defence missiles as shorter-range ballistic missiles to attack ‘soft’ land targets – so surely the US would do the same? Furthermore, the ‘notional intercept coverage’ diagrams published by the US Missile Defense Agency show that the proposed EPAA (Phase IV) interceptors cover Russian territory almost as far as Kazan, 800 kilometres east of Moscow. Doubling that range puts the Urals and half of western Siberia within reach. Now add hysterical reports in the Russian media that the US envisages deploying 900 interceptors in Europe (there were only 108 Pershing II and 464 cruise missiles even during Andropov’s time) – and bear in mind the ‘rule of thumb’ in air defence that any land-to-air missile, launched along the optimal trajectory in land-to-land mode, has twice the maximum range of its air-intercept mode – and you can imagine how dramatic the reaction must be in the souls of any Russian politicians still living in the shadow of the Cold War. After all, it is not just bunkers around Moscow that lie within the prospective ‘striking distance’ of these dreaded ‘fake interceptors’. Some Russians point to the six missile divisions armed with Topol-M/Yars ICBMs on mobile launchers as ideal ‘soft’ military targets and perfect for any hypothetical ‘disarming strikes’ by the US with their missiles ‘disguised’ as interceptors. The fact that there are five ICBM divisions well within the reach of the interceptors which will be capable – after 2020 – of shooting ICBMs down during their ascend phase does not help much either.
That is why Russian diplomats and experts are working hard to prevent BMD interceptor deployments that could potentially threaten Russian territory (and the infamous ‘sector approach’ proposed by Moscow was designed to achieve exactly that). Debris from the intercepted missiles is not the only concern. The Russian establishment’s real concern is that the US might secretly arm the deployed BMD interceptors with nuclear warheads, which would nearly double its potential to hit strategic targets deep within Russian territory. It would also exceed the agreements of the New START Treaty (by adding up to 900 warheads, on ‘fake interceptors’, to the 1,550 warheads permitted by the treaty).
More Farce than Drama
For Putin, the European BMD system has become a re-incarnation of Andropov’s ‘Pershing II threat’ nightmare. As he himself said in an official statement in April 2007: ‘The deployment of the US BMD system’s elements in Europe is the equivalent to the cruise missiles and Pershing missiles deployment in Europe in the early 1980s – the threat [to Russia’s security] is absolutely the same, while the US BMD system’s elements being deployed in Europe are the integral part of the US strategic nuclear armaments’. There are equally clear parallels between measures undertaken by Andropov and those currently being proposed by the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, there is one more layer in this story, making it more of a farce than a drama. The contradictory nature of Russian policy is characterised by the fact that its irrational psychological hostility towards the West is at odds with its far more realistic threat assessments and actual defence policies. The Financial Times commented on 5 July 2011 that ‘Russia historically has distrusted the aims of US ballistic missile defence, which the US insists is aimed at missiles Iran is said to be developing. Moscow argues it could render its nuclear deterrence ineffective and make it vulnerable to a NATO first strike’.
One questions the seriousness of Russia’s concerns about ‘a NATO first strike’. Indeed, the deployment of Russia’s armed forces hints at very different priorities in Russian defence policy. Just 19 per cent of Russian ground troops (including war-time reserves) are deployed in Russia’s Western Military District against NATO, whilst 23 per cent are positioned against Georgia and Iran, and 58 per cent are dedicated to counterbalancing China.
Finally, it is perhaps instructive that there are no air-defence regiments west of Moscow on the ‘Europe-Ural Mountains’ axis. The two western-most S-300 regiments covering the region are deployed so far apart that there is a 200 kilometre-wide gap in Russia’s air defences (keeping in mind the S-300PM’s intercept range), right on the supposedly crucial axis of a ‘prospective missile strike’.
The distribution of Russian forces proves everything but fear of a NATO strike. The noisy campaign of the Russian political beau monde and state-controlled media against the supposed BMD threat seems unjustified, and it appears that the core of Russia’s concerns about BMD have very different origins. In Russia, it is well-known that a British statesman of the Cold War era once said: ‘After all, it is the pound sterling – and not the H-bomb – which is the real symbol of Great Britain’s greatness’ – and, indeed, that is definitely not the case in modern Russia, for the rouble is by no means a symbol of the country’s greatness. The competitiveness of the Russian Federation continues to decline, despite its oil and gas reserves. The world’s ninth largest economy was not created by Russians; it was built up by unknown IPE and NYMEX brokers who keep the price of oil high. Meanwhile, Kremlin leaders are genuinely interested in preventing any further erosion of Russia’s position in the international arena. Hence, this strange ‘Cold War agenda’ is one of the few ways through which the Kremlin can validate Russia’s ‘great power’ status. It is certainly the main reason for its activism over the BMD issue. The Cold War-style paranoia of some Kremlin politicians adds a strangely frantic tone to an otherwise eminently sensible ‘preservation policy’.
The Moscow Times made a perfect, albeit politically incorrect, observation on 7 June: ‘This [propaganda] campaign also highlights that for Russia missile defence issues have led it into mimicking the psychological symptoms of a false or hysterical pregnancy, i.e., a hallucination’. There are very real and solid grounds for Russian concerns about BMD – but these are not the reasons for the negative military threat assessment expounded by Russian politicians today, just as the capabilities of the Pershing II missiles were not the real reason for Andropov’s overly negative threat assessment in the late 1970s. The actual defensive measures undertaken by the Russian state make this very obvious. Meanwhile, the campaign, built largely on propaganda, against US-European BMD plans continues. The old story of Moscow’s misperceptions, paranoid fears and propaganda hysteria is repeating itself, all over again.
Research Fellow, Russian Studies RUSI
Research Fellow, Russian Studies