Less is More: Reducing American Nuclear Missile Defense in Europe

By Elizabeth Pond

Two cheers for the first result of the sequester—scrapping the last stage of Washington's planned ballistic missile defense in Europe. 

Not because this is what Moscow has been stridently demanding for two years, but because this decision serves America's own best interest.

It might eventually—after Vladimir Putin's final presidential term—provide a foundation for the world's two nuclear giants to reduce their arsenals cooperatively to more rational levels. In the meantime, it will cut United States spending on dubious intermediate-range missile defense technology. It might help advance negotiations on halting Iran's race for nuclear weapons. And it should not incur any political cost of weakening American security guarantees for Washington's allies in Europe and Israel.

The Kremlin was slow to respond to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's announcement last Friday that he is shifting funds from the fourth stage of European defense against future Iranian missiles to pay for more interceptors of future North Korean ballistic missiles on the American Pacific coast. Initially the Russians may have been too stunned by a move that abruptly gave them precisely what they have been insisting on in Europe to allay their fears of degradation of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. Or perhaps they felt slighted by Hagel's failure to attribute his action to Russian pressure and to blame instead North Korea's baby nuclear program (and, sotto voce, Congressional—read "Republican"—compellence of defense budget cuts in the sequester).

Not until three days after Hagel's statement did a semi-senior official, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, cautiously dismiss the US move publicly as no "concession to Russia" in an interview published in the Kommersant newspaper. His rebuff clearly reflects the views of neo-Slavophile Putin, who is described by Carnegie Moscow analyst Dmitry Trenin as seeing the U.S. in decline and Europe as in such financial distress that they are no longer worth appeasing.

Under the circumstances, Russia's own would-be modernizers are now hunkered down. They hope that a less Slavophile leader will succeed Putin and return to a governing ethos more open to cooperation with the West. At that point, they could again seek Western investment and management to help mature the Russian economy beyond rent-seeking extraction of raw materials. In the field of nuclear arms they might also be able to restore U.S.-Russia cooperation by building on foundations already laid by unofficial experts on missile defense but rejected by both Putin and President Barack Obama.

There is a slight hope of a more immediate peace dividend elsewhere, in the ongoing last-chance talks between Tehran and six world powers on Iran's expanding potential to build nuclear weapons. Hagel's willingness to downplay the threat of Iranian nuclear missiles could be read as an oblique response to Tehran's somewhat softer position in the talks that resumed in February. Certainly Western analysts believe that after a decade of ever-tougher international sanctions—and instability among Shia Iran's rivals in the Sunni Arab world—Tehran may finally be ready for some kind of deal to promote regional stability.

So far neither Israel, Poland, nor Romania has objected to the sudden downsizing of Washington's European missile defense program and abandonment of phase-four deployments formerly scheduled to become operational by 2022.

Israel depends for its security on missile interceptors that differ from the European ones—and even more on its own and American threats of a last-resort military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities—to thwart Tehran's acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Warsaw long since got the U.S. to put American boots on Polish ground to man a shorter-range Patriot battery close to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad—and continues to trust this tripwire to American intervention against any Russian threat rather more than NATO's third-stage missile defense deployment planned for Poland in 2018. US officials, in any case, gave advance warning before Hagel's announcement of the shift to both Poland and Romania, the second designated European host for American interceptors, and assured them of forthcoming US deployments on their territory.

As for US allies to the west in "old Europe," they were wary of President George W. Bush's ambitious missile defense plan in Europe from the beginning, seeing it as unnecessary and potentially destabilizing. Germans in particular, having depended on nuclear weapons based on their territory to deter the then-Soviet superpower over four Cold War decades, do not share the unambiguous faith of the "new" Europeans that domestic stationing of nuclear or anti-nuclear weapons deter rather than provoke possible adversaries.

Of course there is still one fly in this win-win ointment. The 14 new interceptors that Hagel will deploy by 2017 to supplement the 30 existing ones in California and Alaska could degrade Chinese as well as North Korean ballistic missiles. And Beijing's reaction (admittedly from a low-level foreign ministry spokesman) is that strengthening missile defense will only "intensify antagonism and will not be beneficial to finding a solution for the problem."



Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist and author, covered arms-control negotiations in their 1980s heyday and the Soviet Union in its twilight days.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.]

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