What the New U.S.-Russia Fight is Really About

The Bush administration's plan to base anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Eastern Europe led to an increasingly heated war of words between Russia and the United States this week. An escalating series of threats from the Kremlin against Poland and the Czech Republic eventually resulted in a public response from the administration. On Tuesday, President Bush said that Russia had nothing to fear from the U.S. missile shield (a shield presumably aimed against Iran), but also went out of his way to discuss how Russia had retreated on democracy. Last week at a meeting of the G-8, Secretary of State Rice made a similar argument about the missile shield, to which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov responded, "All they're saying is, 'Don't worry, it's not aimed at you.' It's such answers that are ludicrous." What's going on here? How serious is this conflict between Russia and the United States, and what are the real motivations behind the bluster?


The state of Russian nuclear readiness became a hot topic among analysts in early 2006, with the publication of "The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy" by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press in Foreign Affairs. Lieber and Press argued that the Russian nuclear deterrent had decayed to such a degree since the end of the Soviet Union that Russia no longer possessed second-strike capability vis-à-vis the United States. A well-coordinated U.S. attack on Russia, they suggested, could probably destroy the Russian deterrent triad without opportunity for Russian response. This article generated a heated dispute with Russian scholars and foreign policy officials, who denied that readiness had collapsed to such a degree. Nevertheless, Russia has recently taken steps to enhance its nuclear profile.

A week ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry touted the successful test of an RS-24 missile, a new variant of the Topol-M ICBM that Russia has tested and deployed for several years. According to Russian sources, both the Topol-M and the RS-24 can evade any missile defense system, making them invulnerable to the U.S. anti-ballistic missile network. Several tests of a submarine-based version of the Topol-M have gone awry. Nevertheless, the Russian Navy recently launched Yuri Dolgoruky, its first new ballistic missile submarine in sixteen years and the planned platform for the Topol-M. (Given the failed tests, the new submarine will not deploy missiles for at least three years.) Russia also recently tested a tactical cruise missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons and that would bypass any ballistic missile defense.

In addition to the nuclear buildup, Russia has made threats or taken active steps to abrogate two of the most important arms control agreements of the late 1980s. Earlier this year, Putin announced that Russia would freeze its commitments under the Adapted Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, a successor to the cornerstone Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty that helped reduce tensions and readiness in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at the end of the Cold War. Putin blamed NATO for the failure of the Treaty, as NATO had tied ratification of it to Russia meeting prior commitments to withdraw forces from Georgia and Moldova. (Lavrov, however, indicated yesterday that Russia may be softening its stance on this.) Perhaps more disconcerting, in February, a Russian official threatened that, in response to the U.S. missile defense system, Russia might abrogate the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and start building SS-20s again. (The SS-20 was a particularly frightening Cold War-era weapon designed essentially to destroy Western Europe. Its original development frightened enough people to help catalyze the arms control negotiations of the 1980s, which led to a reduction of tension between the superpowers and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.)

For their part, officials from the United States have insisted that the missile shield is designed to defend Europe from an Iranian ballistic missile launch, and that it could not possibly defeat a serious Russian attack anyway. The Americans have a point, as the modest capabilities of contemporary missile defense technologies tend to make Russian boasts about the capabilities of the Topol-M look like overkill. It is, in fact, by no means certain that the interceptors and radar could actually defeat a tiny number of relatively primitive Iranian missiles, much less flocks of advanced Russian ballistic missiles supported by cruise missiles and strategic bombers. Unfortunately, even accepting at face value U.S. motivations here, missile defense advocates in the United States cannot give a compelling account of why Iran would launch missiles against Europe, and consequently why Europe needs this protection.

States deploy rhetoric for a reason, so what are Russia and the United States trying to accomplish with all of these comments? The Russian threats against NATO must be understood in the context of the larger project of intimidation against virtually all of Russia's neighbors. The Kremlin throws weight around both because intimidation results in real security and financial benefits, and because it believes that it ought to have a quasi-imperial sphere of influence. Even those friendly with and dependent on Russia aren't immune, as President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus recently discovered. In the last several years, Russia has proven willing to play hardball with its smaller neighbors over territorial disputes, energy deals, and even domestic political arrangements. In most of these disputes Russia has enjoyed a high degree of success, and even in cases that haven't resulted in direct capitulation, the effects of pressure and intimidation have modified behavior.

It's also possible that the Russians are genuinely concerned about the ABM bases in Eastern Europe, not so much for what they're capable of now than for what they might mean in twenty years. Given enough time and money, the United States can probably make a missile defense system work. In the 1980s, the Soviets were quite concerned about the Star Wars system despite its lack of technical success, and many of the people in the Kremlin then remain important now. The U.S. contention that the shield isn't aimed at Russia is only halfway believable, given that the interceptors presumably won't be programmed to avoid incoming Russian ballistic missiles. The bases in Eastern Europe also represent a focus of U.S. military activity close to Russia's borders; successful resistance to Russian intimidation on the part of Poland and the Czech Republic could further convince Russia's closest neighbors to seek U.S. military protection and NATO membership. Since it's extremely unlikely that Poland or the Czech Republic take the Iranian threat very seriously, their thinking on this issue probably mirrors the Russians'; that the ABM sites represent a U.S. commitment to protect Eastern Europe both militarily and politically from Russia.

Every foreign policy message has both a foreign and a domestic audience. By aggressively denouncing the deployment of the ABM system in Eastern Europe and touting Russia's successful missile tests, Putin has demonstrated to his constituents that Russia is willing to assume its proper role as a great power. Much like in the United States, a narrative of muscular nationalism holds considerable appeal in the Russian political context. Demonstrating an ability to dominate Russia's neighbors and to resist the United States will play well in the domestic arena. However, the enduringly high popularity that Putin enjoys at home suggests that his central motivations aren't diversionary. It's quite likely that Putin both believes that Russia has a central role to play in its region and understands the domestic political benefits of playing that part.

The Bush administration is also sensitive to both domestic and foreign considerations. The administration has pressed forcefully for expanded missile defense, both on the national and theater scale. Cementing mutual defense arrangements with Poland and the Czech Republic could be an effort to lock in gains on this front. The administration may also believe that cooperation with the two former Eastern Bloc states helps secure the U.S. position in Europe, and supports a general interventionist position in the world. In any case, administration officials avoided engaging the Russian position for some time, suggesting that they neither foresaw nor desired conflict with Putin.


Where do we go from here? While the Bush administration provided the immediate context for this dispute through its abrogation of the ABM Treaty and its efforts to install interceptor bases in Eastern Europe, the general focus of Russian foreign policy isn't dependent on U.S. policy. Some geopolitical trends develop regardless of whether the United States aids or actively opposes them: It was likely only a matter of time before Russia began to reassert itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bush Administration policy has, at best, neglected Russia, but scenarios in which the United States could have pressed Putin towards a more liberal domestic or less coercive foreign policy aren't terribly obvious. The decision of the Clinton administration to press for NATO membership for Eastern European and Baltic states looks quite sensible in retrospect. The Eastern European states foresaw the potential of an assertive Russia, and NATO is the reason why Russia can successfully push around Georgia and Belarus, but not Poland or Estonia. But this does not mean that the United States should now aggressively push for inclusion of Ukraine or other Russian neighbors in NATO; the 1990s represented a relatively short window in which Eastern European power politics were fluid enough to allow a partial realignment.

On the global stage, meanwhile, Cold War dynamics have notably failed to reassert themselves. Whereas the Soviets had understood many aspects of the U.S.-USSR relationship as zero-sum, the current leadership has not taken the view that a gain for the United States represents a loss for Russia. For example, Russia could play a far more dangerous role in the Middle East than it has up to this point. Putin has apparently determined that confrontation with the United States outside of a few areas of traditional Russian interest has little value.

The best and most obvious way to defuse this crisis would be to cancel plans for the useless European missile shield. Because of the commitment of this administration to missile defense and its enduring reluctance to "look weak in front of the Russians," it's unlikely that this course will prevail. President Nicholas Sarkozy took a diplomatic line on the missile issue on Monday at the G-8, and may well attempt to score an early foreign policy success by moderating the dispute in some fashion. Even cancellation of the ABM system, however, would not solve the fundamental problems between the United States and Russia. The two countries have different and essentially irreconcilable visions of what Eastern Europe ought to look like. Moreover, this particular conflict is asymmetric. The United States didn't want the fight and gains little from it. Putin, on the other hand, gets to display toughness to both a foreign and domestic crowd at a relatively low cost.

This conflict won't go away, but it needn't dominate U.S.-Russian relations. (For example, even as the United States and Russia take jabs at each other over Eastern Europe, they continue to cooperate in the Mediterranean and in Central Asia.) Both President Bush and President Putin seem to understand the limited nature of the dispute. In some sense, both could win: Bush will get his interceptors in the end, while Putin will continue to enjoy the opportunity to look tough both to his own people and to Russia's unfortunate neighbors.