By Rahul Krishna*
In a decision that has caused a political stir, the United States on May 12, 2016, decided to activate new missile shield in Deveselu, Romania. The new shield, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program, has sparked off a major controversy with Russia which has viewed it to be an effort to hamper its nuclear deterrence and denounced the decision voraciously.
However, most indicators show that with the current system, or with potential upgrades, the NATO, technologically speaking, does not have the capability to intercept Russia’s longer range missiles. Why then such strong and aggressive reactions from Moscow criticising the US for taking this step? Also what sort of strategic advantage, if any, does the NATO gain by deploying this shield in Eastern Europe?
Moscow’s stance in the past
The US and the Soviet Union had signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 1972. This limited the number of BMD sites each nation could maintain and was signed in an attempt to curb the growing tensions around nuclear deterrence during the Cold War.
In 2001, Washington expressed its desire to leave the ABM treaty and officially withdrew from it in 2002. Its argument was that while the ABM treaty ensured deterrence between the US and Russia, it did not protect the US from states like North Korea or Iran who were developing increasingly long range missile capabilities. President Putin believed that the withdrawal was not something that threatened the national security of Russia. The subsequent negotiation on the START-II front as well as for the formation of the NATO-Russia Council gave reassurances that Moscow was still willing to cooperate with Washington on key initiatives.
This changed over the past few years. One of the major flashpoints occurred in 2008, when the US decided to move ahead with the construction of a missile defense site in Poland. Russia reacted sharply by threatening Poland with a nuclear strike. They made it clear that Russia would not tolerate the construction of any missile shield in eastern or central Europe.
In 2009, then newly elected President, Barack Obama, announced a major decision by the US government to halt construction on the missile defense site in Poland as well as the radar in Czech Republic. The White House had chosen to implement a sea based missile defense system, the Aegis BMD. While reset relations with Moscow was an important factor, it was also true that the Aegis system seemed to be more effective in protecting Europe from the Iranian ballistic missile threat than the one earlier proposed. Nevertheless, the decision was welcomed by then Prime Minister Putin and relations between the two countries looked to be improving.
Since then, the US and other NATO allies have deployed the Aegis BMD program on ships before they decided to initiate a land based variant of the program.
The current standoff
The major question that arises from this situation is whether Russia overreacting to a seemingly non-existent threat?
In the current state, the Aegis BMD system in Romania cannot intercept Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), that is, Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Upgrades have been planned for both the current site in Romania, and the one under construction in Poland, so that the BMD systems will have a limited capability to intercept ICBMs. This still is not a major threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent however, as Russia possesses ICBMs that cannot be intercepted even with the upgraded Aegis system and the number of Russian ICBMs can easily overpower the limited capabilities of the interceptor. In 2007, Russia also claimed to have successfully tested a missile that could penetrate any proposed American BMD system. Why, then is Russia antagonised over the BMD sites?
The issue here is not one directly related to BMDs at all. The issue is that the US has promised boots on the ground to Poland for setting up and operating the BMD system. There has already been deployment in Romania for the same purpose. Rammstein Air Base in Germany is being used to coordinate the entire missile shield in Europe with heavy participation from the US.
All of this comes at a time of tense, strained relations. NATO allies and partner countries, 20 of them to be exact, launched a large scale military exercise in Poland recently. Several NATO countries have called for deployment of a new NATO ‘Black Sea Fleet’. The Baltic nations want NATO to increase deployment in and around the Baltic Sea, and even the traditionally neutral Finland is now hosting exercises with the NATO. In what is a direct and obvious message to Moscow, three of the major NATO powers, UK, Germany, and US held talks recently over establishing a NATO force on the borders of Russia.
Even though Russia may never display it, this reaction from NATO has made Russia jittery and uncertain. The bear does feel threatened. Every action that the NATO takes in the region, whether aimed at Russia or not, will not go down well with the Kremlin and the BMD shield case is one of the prime examples of that.
The path forward
NATO does not appear to be backing down from completing the missile shield in Poland. Russia too seem to be prepared not to back down with reports coming of planned strategic movement of their nuclear arsenal. Another major concern is that tension in Europe could lead to a collapse of negotiations regarding cooperation in the Middle East to combat the threat of ISIS and dealing with the situation in Syria.
It is imperative that the NATO takes Russian insecurity into account while planning for the coming year, as repeatedly showcasing strength in Eastern Europe could only make the bear more nervous and that is not good for the NATO on any front.
*The author is Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.