Russia Wants a Finger on Europe's Nuclear Shield

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Dmitry Astakhovia / AFP / Getty

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev speak during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama on November 14, 2010.

On Friday, before an audience of military officers from around the world, Russia's top generals made a startling admission of weakness. After 2015, they said, Russia may no longer be able to launch a nuclear strike against the West, because the planned U.S. missile shield over Europe would by then be advanced enough to blow Russian rockets out of the sky. This eventuality, which Russia's top brass have never admitted before, would finally dislodge the Cold War balance of nuclear superpowers — and it is not something the generals would allow. But what exactly can they do about it?

In the past few months, this question has begun to feel like a time bomb in the U.S.-Russian relationship, one that both presidents, Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, will try again to defuse when they meet later this week in Deauville, France. The rough contours of the dilemma — nicknamed the red button debate in Moscow's diplomatic circles — first started coming into view last November, when Medvedev attended the NATO summit in Lisbon. In a landmark speech before the military alliance, he said that Russia would agree to cooperate on the creation of a European missile shield — a system of interceptors meant to protect from rogue-state attacks — as long as it was treated as an "equal partner" in the process.

At the time, no one was quite sure what Medvedev meant by "equal partner," and western reactions to the speech focused gleefully on the fact that Russia had started talking about cooperation, and had stopped threatening, as it had done before, to point nuclear weapons at Europe if the missile shield went ahead. But the condition of equal partnership has since emerged as a deal-breaker. In April, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who oversees military issues in the Russian government, finally clarified Russia's demand. "We insist on only one thing, that we're an equal part of [the missile shield]," Ivanov said after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, according to the Bloomberg news agency. "In practical terms, that means our office will sit for example in Brussels and agree on a red-button push to start an anti-missile, regardless of whether it starts from Poland, Russia or the U.K."

This would seem to require a dual set of controls for the shield, one for Russia and one for NATO. If a missile is headed toward Europe from Iran, North Korea or anywhere else, both sides would need to hit their respective red buttons to launch the interceptor. If they stall, the missile plows along toward its target.

Since Ivanov's statement, neither the U.S. nor NATO have publicly responded to this suggestion, but in conversations with TIME, several western diplomatic and military sources have called it a non-starter. "Realistically, [the controls will be held by] an American general in a NATO hat sitting somewhere in Europe," says one senior European military source on condition of anonymity. "When [an enemy weapon] is in the air, you can't call a meeting or have a debate. You have to just shoot it down."

But given the gravity of the threat this would pose to Russia's military, it is unclear how Moscow can go along with it. A European missile shield of the kind Obama envisions could demote Russia to a second-rate nuclear power incapable of launching a strike across continents, at least not toward the West. On Friday, during the conference at Russia's top war college attended by military attaches from dozens of countries, Russian General Andrei Tretyak made the unprecedented suggestion that after 2015, the third stage of the planned missile shield over Europe could disturb the Cold War-era balance between the U.S. and Russian arsenals.

"A real possibility has appeared for the destruction of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-mounted ballistic missiles," Tretyak, who heads the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian General Staff, was quoted by state news agencies as saying. "This is a real threat to our nuclear deterrence forces."

In the past week, the normally dovish Medvedev, as well as top diplomatic and military officials, seemed to lay new ground for a confrontation over this issue ahead of the meeting with Obama during the Group of Eight summit on May 26-27. If the Kremlin receives no guarantees that the missile shield will not be used against Russia, then it will have to take "steps in response," Medvedev said during a press conference on May 18. This could mean beefing up nuclear forces at Europe's doorstep or, as one foreign ministry official suggested last week, pulling out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that Obama and Medvedev signed last year. "This is a very bad scenario, which throws us back to the period of the Cold War," Medvedev said at the press conference. "We are ready to cooperate and hope that we will get guarantees that the potential [of the missile shield] is not directed at us."

But aside from giving the Russians their own red button, or some other form of control, it is hard to see how Obama can guarantee that interceptors would never be used to knock a Russian rocket down. At the war college conference on Friday, General Nikolai Makarov, the chief of the General Staff, said that the "unsubstantiated statements" Russia has so far been hearing from the West are not enough to reassure him about the shield's intentions.

So Obama may need to offer something more concrete. But considering the tens of billions dollars the shield is expected to cost — and the millions of lives it could potentially save in case of a nuclear strike — it is also hard to imagine Russia getting a seat in the control room. But if that is what Moscow continues to demand, U.S.-Russian relations will keep veering toward a confrontation. And that is when the red buttons of the Cold War could cease to be a distant memory.