The U.S. and Russia ratified a news arms control deal just last year. But when NATO and Russian officials get together in Brussels this week, they will deal with the increasingly thorny issue of missile defense.
In recent speeches, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow might have to take countermeasures if the U.S. proceeds with missile defense deployments in Europe.
Those measures, he said, might include reassessing Russia's commitment to nuclear arms control.
Medvedev appeared on Russian television recently to announce that Moscow might deploy its own missiles near the borders of NATO countries and aim them at U.S. missile defense installations. And he added that Russia is proceeding with the deployment of a new radar system to track U.S. missiles.
The most unadorned and undiplomatic response came from the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder. A few days ago, Daalder said the U.S. will carry out its plan to protect U.S. allies in Europe from Iran's potential missile threat "whether Russia likes it or not."
For years now U.S. leaders have been telling the Russians the missile defense plan in Europe is not against them, but Medvedev has not been convinced.
"These pronouncements unfortunately don't guarantee the protection of our interests," Medvedev said. "So when we are told this isn't against us, I say, our radar station is also not against you."
Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, saw a possible political motive behind Medvedev's remarks, given Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia.
"His comments were timed to help bolster his party's standing with the Russian electorate that likes to see its leaders stand up to the West," Kimball said.
At the same time, many analysts say, Medvedev's remarks went beyond short-term political considerations.
"Some of them, granted, are for political consumption during an election period. But part of it represents the real anxieties of the Russian military," said Joe Cirincione, director of the Ploughshares Fund. He believes the U.S. has to take more seriously the concerns coming from Russia on this issue.
"Russia is definitely trying to get our attention," he added. "They keep saying one thing after another: 'If you don't solve this problem, we're not going to have another round of arms control talks, or we might close the NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. We might withdraw from the treaty.' "
He was referring to the New START agreement that was ratified last year and which mandates a reduction in both U.S. and Russian offensive nuclear weapons to 1,500 on each side.
Offense Versus Defense
The actual missile interceptors that the U.S. intends to deploy in Europe are years away and in such small numbers that they could never neutralize Russia's current offensive nuclear weapons.
But that could change over time, says Kimball of the Arms Control Association. As arms control agreements force a smaller and smaller Russian offensive nuclear arsenal, the missile defense system could expand and become more formidable.
"In theory, future versions of these missile interceptors could have greater capability against long-range ballistic missiles, including some in Russia. And they are going to be potentially deployed in larger numbers," he said.
So this disagreement is real and it goes deep, says Cirincione.
"We are sending mixed messages to Russia," he said. "Our diplomats say there's nothing to worry about. This is all directed against Iran. But our military officials are rushing ahead with plans to build systems that, from a Russian point of view, look like they are aimed at Russia."
So missile defense has once again landed high on the diplomatic agenda between the U.S. and Russia.
The goal, Kimball says, is to find some sort of agreement that will prevent a defensive-offensive missile competition from breaking out.
"I don't think that this is the beginning of a new arms race," Kimball says. "There is time and an opportunity to turn missile defense from an issue of confrontation into one of cooperation."
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