Moscow, the US and Missile Defense: Assessing the Russian Perspective

By Richard Weitz

Russia’s national security elite do not perceive U.S. missile defenses as the most serious obstacle to strategic arms control.

Their concerns mostly focus on U.S. long-range conventional strike weapons, U.S. space-based systems, NATO nuclear weapons sharing, U.S. military activities around Russia, non-ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and U.S. strategic defenses.

The Russian government also demands that additional countries—especially Britain, France, and China—take part in future nuclear arms control agreements as well.

These insights derive from recent meetings with Russian officials and experts in Moscow and Washington.

Most Russians recognize these sweeping objectives are impractical.

They acknowledge that a more plausible goal, at least for the next few years, will be measures aimed at enhancing strategic stability rather than new arms control treaties.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told participants of last month’s Moscow Security Conference that the Russian government wants a comprehensive dialogue with Washington on all aspects of strategic stability.

Russians complain that their U.S. interlocutors routinely dismiss their arguments as unimportant or self-serving.

Rather, they think that Americans have perceived Russia as weak and even unworthy of having its concerns or interests taken seriously.

They are not entirely wrong, so this column strives to communicate Russian views as well as assess them as well. 

In his conference remarks, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu termedU.S. missile defenses as “a serious destabilizing factor” since Russia will strengthen its offensive forces to overcome these competing defenses.

But Shoigu and other Russian officials focused more on other causes, especially NATO’s military buildup near Russia’s border, which is “spurring a new arms race.”

Resolving the Russian-U.S. missile defense dispute would therefore not generate much positive impact in bilateral relations.

In contrast to previous years, the Moscow Conference did not hold a missile defense session while convening panels on terrorism, soft power, and several regional subjects.

On February 5, the central limits of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) finally entered into force. Through February 2021, these ceilings restrict Russian and U.S. air, ground, and maritime nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and warheads.

Russian experts describe New START as the first “fair” treaty since all previous ones allegedly favored Washington by imposing more severe limits on Soviet and Russian advantages rather than U.S. ones—limiting heavy ground-launched ballistic missiles but not submarine-launched ones.

New START supports Moscow’s claim to strategic parity with Washington, in both status and capabilities.

Russian officials have voiced some concerns about U.S. compliance with New START, but these are unrelated to missile defense.

For example, the Foreign Ministry has objected to how the U.S. government is converting certain former strategic delivery vehicles, such as some B-52s, to a non-nuclear role and excluding others, such as some missile silos designated for training purposes, from the ceilings.

Nonetheless, the Russian government is prepared to extend New START for another five years, as allowed for by the treaty, to reduce political tensions and to make Russian-U.S. nuclear relations more stable.

The U.S. government has launched an interagency review of whether to extend the treaty, allow it to expire in 2021, or pursue some other option.

A decision on New START extension would help address Russian criticisms about the unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy.

They complain that the Trump administration has yet to communicate its specific objectives regarding arms control and other bilateral issues.

They also confirm the administration’s reluctance to meet Russian government representatives, whether in ministerial-level meetings, receiving Russian envoys in Washington, or holding their long-sought Putin-Trump presidential summit.

Russian expectations of any near-term improvement in bilateral relations are low; for now, they are striving simply for stability and predictability.

Regarding nonproliferation, Russian officials worry that the disarmament deadlock and divisions among the five nuclear powers generate further support for what they characterize as quixotic disarmament schemes, like the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, which lack effective means of verification and enforcement.

They also see Russian-U.S. tensions as impeding measures to curb the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies to other countries and non-state actors.

Russian government representatives say they want to work with the United States to limit the number of countries that can enrich uranium due to the risk that such technology can be misused to make nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration insists that further arms control progress will only occur after “Russia returns to compliance with its arms control obligations, reduces its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and corrects its other destabilizing behaviors.”

However, Putin’s March 1 speech showing off new Russian strategic weapons attacking the United States makes clear that Moscow will not soon meet these requirements.

In any case, no U.S. missile defense architecture or system would satisfy Russian objections since Moscow is mostly concerned with BMD sensors and technologies rather than the specific type of U.S. interceptor.

According to Russian assessments, U.S. national and theater missile defenses present a seamless network of shooters (interceptors), sensors (radars), and other “plug-and-play” technologies.

If anything, Russian objections have focused more on systems deployed closest to Russia, such as Aegis-ashore in Europe or THAAD on the Korean Peninsula, rather than the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which provides the most effective means of shielding the American homeland from missile strikes.

Russia is increasing the number and variety of its nuclear weapons, displaying such weapons in high-profile exercises, and threatening to use them against Washington and its allies.

Putin’s March speech hopefully marked the end the of Moscow’s preoccupation with U.S. missile defenses. Russians insist that they can upgrade their offensive forces to overcome any defenses; U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis agrees.

The featured photo shows Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaking at the 7th MCIS.

According to TASS in an article published on April 5, 2018:

Moscow calls on Washington to jointly tackle the issue related to the modernization of US strategic delivery vehicles in accordance with the New START Treaty, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the Moscow Conference on International Security on Thursday.

“We have honored all our commitments under the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms and call on the US, in accordance with the procedures provided for by that treaty, to jointly address the issues related to the modernization of part of some US strategic delivery vehicles,” he said.