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Russians See U.S. Missile Defense in Poland Posing Nuclear Threat

Interviewee: Pavel Felgenhauer, Defense Columnist, Novaya Gazeta
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 18, 2009

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst in Moscow, says some Russian military leaders fear the U.S. missile defense system planned for installation in Poland and the Czech Republic is really intended to deploy nuclear-armed missiles. Felgenhauer says some Russian military officials warn these missiles could present a deadly first-strike threat against Moscow. Felgenhauer says the Kremlin wants a new arms control treaty with the United States that limits missile defense capabilities. "Though many Democrats are rather skeptical about missile defense, the notion of missile defense is nevertheless popular in the United States, and I don't believe that the two sides could approve any new treaty which will not forbid future development of a global missile defense," he says.

How would you describe the overall relationship between the United States and Russia? President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plan their first summit meeting in London around April 1, just ahead of the G-20 meeting.

There's guarded hope that the relations may improve. There's the political will expressed from both sides to try to improve relations. That does not mean, however, that that's going to happen.

Now the key issue from the Russian side in recent years has been the plan to develop a missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly to protect against possible Iranian missiles. Is that still the main issue worrying the Russian side?

Yes, it's seen as very undesirable by Moscow. The Russian military has been telling its political leaders that this missile plan is actually not what the Americans say it is. The Russian military says that these missiles will be nuclear-armed because the Russian military doesn't believe that non-nuclear defensive missiles are possible. At least most of them don't.

Moscow very much wants in writing a pledge from the United States that a global missile defense will not develop. This, I believe, is the main stumbling block in the future relationship between the Kremlin and the Obama administration.

Please explain.

Russia has its own deployed missile defense shield. This is its nuclear defense. A nuclear warhead, a megaton-quality capable of exposing a couple of kilometers of targets, can disable incoming nuclear warheads. The Russian military believes that such a missile defense is more or less possible, but the American notion of non-nuclear warheads, "bullets hitting bullets," is a smokescreen. They believe that nuclear missiles will be deployed in Poland near Russia and these nuclear missiles will have also a first-strike capability and could hit Moscow before [Russia's response] could get airborne, so this is going to actually be seen not so much as missile defense as a deployment of first-strike capability.

And that's why Russia is so nervous.

That's why Russia is so insistent that there should be Russian inspectors on the site to see that there is no nuclear deployment. What made Moscow so nervous specifically about the [planned] deployment in Poland is that, as a missile defense, it cannot really threaten Russia at all. But it's seen differently as a nuclear first strike threat.

Is the Russian concern about the missile deployment also political?

Moscow does not like the Americans deploying any kind of military infrastructure in the former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and also of course the Baltic republics [Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania]. Moscow would want to be consulted on any military infrastructure deployment in these former Soviet-dominated nations, which would actually mean that Russia would have an equal power over deployment of any military infrastructure. Then there's the problem of missile defense in not just Poland and the Czech Republic, but the [potential for] global missile defense being created by the United States. Right now there is no global defense, but sometime after 2020 or 2030 this defense could be deployed and could threaten the effectiveness of the Russian nuclear deterrent.

So right now, in the run-up to this April 1 summit in London, Moscow has further spelled out its desire for a new treaty on arms control, which includes the creation of some kind of updated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Moscow very much wants in writing a pledge from the United States that a global missile defense will not develop. This, I believe, is the main stumbling block in the future relationship between the Kremlin and the Obama administration. Though many Democrats are rather skeptical about missile defense, the notion of missile defense is nevertheless popular in the United States, and I don't believe that the two sides could approve any new treaty which will not forbid future development of a global missile defense.

The Russian military has been telling its political leaders that this missile plan is actually not what the Americans say it is. The Russian military says that these missiles will be nuclear armed because the Russian military doesn’t believe that non-nuclear defensive missiles are possible.

There was a well-publicized but unpublished letter from Obama to Medvedev which apparently touched on missile defense but indicated that the United States would be willing to slow down the deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic if there were signs that Iran had agreed to halt its nuclear program. How much influence does Russia have on Iran?

Not much at all, actually. And that's why this notion that was reported in the press was more or less turned down by Moscow. It was seen as an American hoax to say, "Well, there will be no missile defense in Poland if you pressure Iran to stop its nuclear and missile program." We know that we cannot do that, and by accepting such an exchange, we in fact would legalize the deployment of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Iran is rather independent from Moscow. Of course, there were attempts a couple of years ago to form a kind of partnership with Iran, but this has run into different kinds of problems over time. We sell them weapons, of course, but not all the weapons they want. Israel pressured us not to sell them the long-range S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Moscow, by the way, now has very good relations with Israel.

Don't the Russians sell the Iranians nuclear technology?

That's right. We sell them some nuclear technologies, but again with a sort of limit. Iran has territorial claims in the Caspian which Russia does not accept. Iran does not really want Russia to restore Soviet-style influence in Central Asia. So on some issues we agree with them and other issues we disagree with them. And they are not our client.

Let me go to another issue. When the president of Kyrgyzstan was in Moscow the Russians offered to give him a loan of $2.5 billion, and he then said the American base at Manas had to close. Yet the Russians in another voice said they'd allow NATO civilian aid to Afghanistan to go through Russia by railroad. Is this an effort by Moscow to show that it wants to control its former Soviet republics?

Yes, of course we want to control them. What that means is that we want to show Washington that if they want to have logistical support from former Soviet territories for operations in Afghanistan, they have to go to Moscow and make a deal here.

That was a rather crude move with the Kyrgyz president, a public sort of bribe.

Well that's the way the Russians deal. That's the old Soviet style. It's kind of a gangland style of negotiating.

The United States is promoting a global conference on Afghanistan later this month through the United Nations. What is Russia's view on Afghanistan?

Russia does not want the United States to have a foothold in Central Asia. We don't like them, of course, increasing their presence in Afghanistan, which is close to Central Asia. But on the other hand, we don't want the Taliban to succeed and again threaten Central Asia as it happened when the Taliban more or less took over all of Afghanistan in the year 2000. Russia then was actively supporting the forces of the Northern Alliance and closely worked with the United States in overthrowing the Taliban regime. This rather mimics the policy of Iran, which also doesn't work for the United States but also doesn't like the Taliban at all.

So if you're a U.S. president or secretary of state or defense secretary, are you going to get help from the Russians?

That depends on other issues actually. Most of the Russian foreign policy since after 9/11 has leaned toward having a kind of a grand deal with the United States. After 9/11 the Kremlin believed it had a deal: We will help the Americans in the "war on terror." We'll help you in Afghanistan. In return, you should give us as an undisputed sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

The leaders of present Russia want to stabilize the situation, meaning that they want to be in power for at least twenty more years. And they want to control not only Russia but also to control or have a kind of belt of dependency from the former Soviet republics around Russian borders. They want the West to be out, meaning not Western business whose money is welcomed, but they want the Western ideas and values that the Western governments spin, like democracy, not to be spread out through the former Soviet states. We want to control it, and we don't want any kind of democratic revolutions around.

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