Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy "The Best Defense" Blog

Comrades, we're in a defensive arms race with Russia-- but it isn't a bad thing.

| December 15, 2011

It appears that Russia and the United States are about to embark on what may be the most peaceful and productive arms race in history -- a defensive arms race.

Russia, the U.S., and NATO have been unable to come to agreement over U.S. missile defense plans for Europe.  Russia views the deployment of U.S. interceptors there as the first step to an eventual capability to negate Russia's only remaining deterrent to an attack by the West -- its nuclear offensive weapons.  Russia has basically three responses it can choose: increase its offensive forces, increase its defensive forces, or do nothing.

On Nov. 29th, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that the Russian made Voronezh-DM radar warning station was moving to immediate combat readiness.  It will detect incoming missiles targeted against Russia's exclave of Kaliningrad.  "I expect that this step will be seen by our partners as the first signal of the readiness of our country to make an adequate response to the threats which the (Western) missile shield poses for our strategic nuclear forces," Medvedev said.

Russian leaders have previously promised to improve the survivability of their offensive nuclear missile force as a means of ensuring that they would retain an effective nuclear deterrent, and that will likely happen.  But recent events and announcements indicate that Russia is also investing money in its own increased missile defenses.  The Ministry of Defense is creating a new branch of service, the Aerospace Defense Force, which will unite defensive forces stretching from space-based platforms to land based systems, all intended to protect against external attacks, first and foremost U.S. strategic nuclear attacks.  This is an unexpected development given that most observers, and even some Russian military leaders, predicted Russia would not follow America's lead in spending billions on expensive missile defense technologies.

The new aerospace forces are the Ministry of Defense's third priority according to a recent briefing by Russia's Chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov.  But according to some security experts, the aerospace forces are really the ministry's first priority, because they will receive the majority of the defense ministry's modernization funds over the next decade.   So, this development has a budget and people assigned: a good indication that it will actually happen.

Medvedev thinks a Russian defensive system will be viewed as a threat by the US and NATO, forcing concessions from them on their defensive plans.  But rather than forcing the U.S. and NATO to constrain their plans, such a move might actually remove any reluctance to deploy their systems.  If Russia can equalize the strategic balance by expanding its own defenses, then the U.S. and NATO do not have to consider limiting theirs.

A defensive arms race like the one unfolding is not a threat to the U.S. or NATO or Russia.  Instead, the development of a more robust missile defense system in Russia will make Russia a better partner in any future joint missile defense system with NATO.  It will also generate more jobs in Russia and help strengthen a military that has been habitually underfunded and abused by the leadership.  The best part is that, like U.S. missile defenses, Russian defensive forces cannot attack an enemy.  They only protect.

It is true that Medvedev has also said he will deploy Iskander surface to surface missiles that could destroy U.S./NATO missile interceptors that target Russian ICBMs, but this is a meaningless threat if the U.S. and NATO are sincere in their promise that our defensive interceptors are not aimed at those Russian ICBMs.

The missile defense situation is not a volatile one, but it has thus far been a missed opportunity for improved cooperation on nuclear and security interests.  Neither side is able or willing to retreat from their current positions on deployments, threat assessments, or cooperation.  However, Russian leaders realize that U.S. missile defenses, especially for the next few years, do not yet threaten Russia's strategic deterrent, and U.S. leaders realize that Russia is not likely to increase its offensive nuclear power over the same period.  The result will be a stable situation in which the U.S. can continue its missile defense deployments and Russia can build its new defensive forces.  In both cases, domestic budget considerations will probably keep the pace of deployment slow.

Sometime after Feb. 2013, when both countries have decided their new presidents for the next few years, we can revisit the missile defense cooperation situation and perhaps find more common ground.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ryan, Kevin.“Comrades, we're in a defensive arms race with Russia-- but it isn't a bad thing..” Foreign Policy "The Best Defense" Blog, December 15, 2011.