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For a while now, well out of the limelight, Russia and NATO have been negotiating about how to cooperate on missile defense. On Wednesday we got the announcement that the talks have broken down. For good? Hard to say. But the atmospherics don’t sound promising.

There is, potentially, a lot at stake. The Russians have been dropping hints that they might pull out of New START, the much-ballyhooed treaty on nuclear arsenals that went into force earlier this year, if a deal can’t be reached. Even President Dmitry Medvedev, not usually known as a saber-rattler, has allowed himself a few dire predictions. In May he warned about the possibility of a “new Cold War” if talks on missile defense were to fail. (This actually shouldn’t come as such a surprise. It was Medvedev, after all, who vowed to shift Russian short-range missiles to Kaliningrad a few years back in order to deter construction of the European missile shield.)

If the Russians were to make good on this threat, it would effectively scupper the signal foreign policy achievement of the Obama Administration – the “reset” in Russian-American relations that followed a few years of cool in the later stages of George W. Bush’s term in office. New START, signed by both presidents last year in Prague, is the centerpiece of this rapprochement. Judging by some of President Obama’s statements in recent months, a positive outcome on missile defense talks with the Russians was going to be the next big take-away.

The irony is that the current White House managed to get to this point in part by watering down the Bush Administration’s more ambitious missile defense system plans. Soon after he came into office, President Obama declared that the U.S. would opt for a system based on shorter-range mobile missiles rather than fixed-site interceptors. The Russians (and many Europeans) initially reacted with relief. But the mood has soured since then.

It’s hard to know precisely what NATO was offering the Russians to make them feel better about the missile defense project. The Russians don’t like the idea of a European missile defense system at all, since they fear that it undercuts their own nuclear deterrent. They want NATO to give them pledges that the system won’t be used against their own missiles – essentially giving them a veto over the defense system's operation. Plus they want a whole host of other reassurances:

Russia wants a treaty on the matter to include information on the total number and the kinds of missile interceptors that would be deployed in the shield as well as their speed and deployment locations, Kommersant reported.

Moscow also wants a joint “sectoral” defense with both NATO and Russia at the controls, giving the Kremlin a “finger on the trigger,” as it were. But it’s extremely hard to imagine any NATO countries signing up for that. NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly stated that that’s not what NATO wants:

What we have in mind is cooperation between two independent missile defense systems. If we achieve this, if will be a tangible demonstration that NATO and Russia can build security together, rather than against each other.

The Americans and their allies have talked about giving the Russians a role as a “stakeholder” in the existing system (whatever that means). But what these negotiations actually seem to have done in practice is to expose just how deep the gulf between the two sides remains.

Some experts also wonder whether the Russians are really ready to make good on their threats to pull out of New START. Carol Saivetz, a Russia expert at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that Moscow needs the treaty more than Washington does since so much of Russian nuclear arsenal is either outdated or under-maintained. Meanwhile, the restart has benefited the Russians by effectively taking NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia “off the table.” She notes that the collapse of the missile defense talks has gone largely unmentioned in the Russian media.

Still, you can’t help but wonder whether the premise of these negotiations was flawed from the start. How do you design an effective European missile defense that the Russians would really be willing to swallow? Sure, I understand the argument that a system designed to protect against a small number of missiles from Iran won’t be effective against a large-scale attack from the Russians – meaning that the proposed NATO missile defense doesn’t really undermine Moscow’s strategic deterrent. But it’s also easy to imagine all sorts of political and strategic reasons why the Kremlin would never want to be seen accepting such a thing without getting a whole lot in return. Europe needs a missile defense system. Russia will probably have to find a way to live with it.

So let’s see what happens when Robert Gates meets his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, for talks today. Perhaps there will be more news then.

- Christian Caryl

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