Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan first proposed developing a space-based nuclear shield in the 1980s. The shield -- consisting of high-tech radars and lasers -- was to have been purely defensive in nature. The system would intercept and destroy long-range missiles fired at the United States and its allies before those missiles had a chance to reach their target. The "Star Wars" plan, as it was dubbed, got a cold reception in Moscow. Soviet officials argued the United States could launch a first-strike nuclear attack and subsequently use the shield to protect itself from nuclear retaliation, undercutting the deterrent of "mutually assured destruction." The issue is again at the forefront of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
In the second part of his four-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the issue.
Prague, 19 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Much has changed since Ronald Reagan first floated his "Star Wars" plan. The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 robbed Moscow of its superpower status, leaving Washington without a major adversary. But the idea of a missile defense shield has found a champion in U.S. President George W. Bush, who has vowed to push for its deployment.
The Bush administration argues the ranks of nuclear nations may soon swell to include "rogue" states such as North Korea and Iraq. In its new incarnation, Washington's proposed national missile defense system would be aimed at intercepting long-range ballistic missiles launched by those states.
Once again, the United States argues, the shield would be purely defensive and add to global security. As Secretary of State Colin Powell argued in Washington this month:
"We think it is, at the end of the day, stabilizing. It is part of an overall deterrent system and it will strengthen deterrence."
Moscow remains opposed to the project. At a recent European security conference in Munich, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, argued that deployment of the U.S. missile defense system would mean an end to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, known as ABM, between Washington and Moscow -- leading to a new arms race. Russia considers the ABM treaty, which places limits on both countries on developing anti-missile systems, as the cornerstone of arms-control agreements.
"These plans, first of all, undermine the fundamentals of global strategic stability. Deployment of the Anti-Missile Defense [system], by definition, would make the ABM treaty senseless. And destruction of the ABM Treaty -- and we are quite positive about it -- will result in annihilation of the whole structure of strategic stability and create prerequisites for a new arms race, including the one in outer space."
The Bush administration says the ABM treaty needs to be amended, but it has launched a major public relations effort to convince Russia it has nothing to fear from national missile defense. Washington's European allies will also need convincing.
How serious are the divisions and to what degree will Washington's determination to pursue this project alter its relations with its European allies and, above all, Russia?
Stephen Blank, an expert on arms, says that in one sense, Russia is reaping the fruits of its missile proliferation:
"The Russians have no one to blame but themselves. They're the ones running around selling nuclear technology and know-how to all these states. They've sold it to Iran, they've sold it to Iraq. They probably gave it to North Korea. They've given it to China. They've given assistance to India. What did they think would happen?"
Blank acknowledges that much of Europe is against any form of U.S. national missile defense. France opposes it. Sweden, which is not a NATO member but currently presides over the EU, has called on Washington to halt the program. Germany was initially lukewarm to the idea but now appears to be more supportive, regarding it as purely an American decision.
Blank says opposition from America's allies should be expected and will gradually be overcome.
"The fact is the Europeans are going to criticize the United States a lot of times, no matter what it does. And that's in a sense part of the price of being the leader of the alliance. Now the facts are, however, that if such a system can work -- and we're talking now either theater missile defense or national missile defense -- it will be available to Europe."
The term "national" missile defense initially rankled European sensibilities, prompting the question of whether America would leave its allies to fight rogue states on their own, while the U.S. remained safe behind its missile shield. Over the past two weeks, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has taken pains to stress that Europe would be included in any working system.
But how Washington will mollify Russia remains to be seen.
Andrei Piontkowsky, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, says that despite the Kremlin's increasingly shrill language, Russia has little to fear from national missile defense and Russian officials privately acknowledge that.
"Russia's response capability today amounts to 1,000 warheads, which Moscow can unleash in response to a hit on the territory of the United States. The maximum which the proposed national missile defense system could counteract -- at least over the next 15 to 20 years -- would be 20 to 50 warheads. So the only change is that Russia's response capability will go down to 950 warheads from 1,000. That's no significant difference whatsoever."
Piontkowsky says Europe's vocal opposition to the U.S. plan -- which began last year after a series of missile tests conducted under the Clinton administration -- has encouraged Moscow in recent weeks to strengthen its attacks, in an attempt to split the NATO alliance over the issue:
"Last summer, Moscow was inclined to compromise. But at the time, Europe began to raise protests regarding national missile defense -- especially Germany -- and this played into the hands of the opponents of compromise. Moscow once again got the illusion of being able to exploit trans-Atlantic differences in NATO."
But according to Piontkowsky, this strategy cannot work over the long term. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer emphasized that point during a visit to Moscow last week, when he stressed that although Germany may have its differences with the United States, it remains a loyal NATO member and will not act as an intermediary between Moscow and Washington. Piontkowsky says Russia will have to negotiate a compromise with the United States, but this may take some time.
"Our diplomats have painted themselves into a corner. People are beginning to understand that modifying the ABM treaty would be more advantageous for Russia than renouncing all agreements. But they have repeated this threat so often that a reasonable compromise would look like a loss of face."
Beyond the politics of missile defense is the practical issue of whether such a system can actually work. Professor Blank explains:
"The tests that were carried out under the Clinton administration failed. What is clear is that you can do missile defense and that it works at the theater level. The Israelis have proved it. If you look at the "Arrow," which is the Israeli system -- built with our help as well -- it works as a theater missile defense. There's no doubt that it works and it's already operational."
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently suggested some form of regional security arrangement for Europe as a counter-proposal to missile defense.
Last week, a senior Russian general said Moscow would soon be ready with details of a plan for what it called a compact and inexpensive missile shield for Europe.
Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, the head of the Defense Ministry's international cooperation department, said Moscow's proposal would easily beat Washington's plan, which he says would drain Europe financially. Ivashov provided few details, but he described it as mobile, non-strategic anti-missile force.
Retired U.S. diplomat James Goodby, who served as Bill Clinton's chief negotiator for nuclear security and dismantlement, tells RFE/RL that any Russian counter-proposal may provide an opportunity for the U.S. to strike a deal on a more limited form of theater missile defense.
"Putin's talked about [a Russian shield]. Nothing's very clear in what he's said about what he's thinking, but I think it's an opening that ought to be exploited. [I] think that may indeed be the way you phase in any kind of system anyway, with something Russia is fully participating in and has some advantages for all parties."
Otherwise, Goodby says, a new arms race -- despite the fact that it would be ruinous for Russia and totally unnecessary from a military standpoint -- might indeed restart.
Russia's loss of superpower status means it holds few cards in the missile defense debate. Much will depend on its ability to compromise and Washington's willingness to accommodate.