Russia appears to be playing a dangerous game in its relationships with the US and Central Europe. Moscow’s strategy involves using crises with the United States to create uncertainty in Central Europe and to make the Europeans uncomfortable over perceptions that the United States has forced Russia to act the way it is acting. But, if Moscow takes its aggressive moves too far, it could spark a backlash from both sides.
Tensions between the United States and Russia have risen in the past month over several long-standing problems, including ballistic missile defense (BMD) and supply lines into Afghanistan. Moscow and Washington also appear to be nearing another crisis involving Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The crises come as Washington struggles over its many commitments in the world and over whether to focus on present events in Afghanistan or future events in Central Europe. Russia has exploited the US dilemma, using its leverage in both arenas. However, if Moscow takes its aggressive moves too far, it could spark a backlash from the United States and Central Europe.
The Persisting Disagreement over BMD
The US BMD scheme for Europe has long been a source of US-Russian tensions. Washington argues that its European BMD program aims to counter threats emerging from the Middle East, namely Iran, but its missile defense installations in Romania and Poland are not slated to become operational until 2015 and 2018, respectively, by which time Russia believes the United States will have resolved its issues with Iran. Moscow thus sees US missile defense strategy as more about the United States seeking to contain Russia than about Iran. Moscow does not fear that the United States is seeking to neutralize or erode Russia’s nuclear deterrent, however; the issue is the establishment of a physical US military footprint in those two states — which in turn means a US commitment there. Romania and Poland border the former Soviet Union, a region where Russia is regaining influence.
Russia previously pressured key states in the Bush-era BMD scheme, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, to reconsider acceding to such plans. This assertiveness peaked with its 2008 invasion of Georgia, which both proved that Moscow was willing to take military action and exposed the limits of US security guarantees in the region. The Russian move in Georgia gave the Central Europeans much to think about, prompting some attempts to appease the Kremlin. Still, these states did not abandon all faith in the United States as a strategic counter to Russia.
Russia has since shifted its BMD strategy. Instead of categorically opposing the plan, Moscow proposed a cooperative, integrated scheme. The Kremlin reasoned that if Iran and other non-Russian threats were the real reason for expanding missile defense, then Russian involvement — which would strengthen the West’s defenses — would be welcomed.
Russia’s BMD capabilities span the Eurasian continent, though their practical utility to and compatibility with US systems is questionable. This plan was seen as a way to take a more conciliatory approach with the same end goal: blocking the placement of US troops in Eastern Europe.
The United States and most of NATO refused Russia’s proposals, however, leaving the door open for the Kremlin to introduce a new defense strategy, which Russian President Dmitri Medvedev outlined Nov. 23. Medvedev emphasized that Russia had exercised the “political will” to open a fundamentally new chapter in relations with the United States and NATO, only to have the United States spurn the offer. US resistance to Russian inclusion in the BMD system forced Moscow to make other arrangements to counter US plans in Central Europe — precisely the outcome it had hoped for.
Medvedev also said that if the United States continues to refuse BMD cooperation with Russia, Moscow would carry out plans for the deployment of the Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missiles and the activation of an early-warning radar system in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea that borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania. He said Russia also would consider the deployment of other Iskander systems, particularly along his country’s western and southern borders, and would hasten to fit its ballistic missiles with advanced maneuverable re-entry vehicles and penetration aids, a process that has long been under way. The prospect of Russian strategic weapons targeting BMD facilities was also raised. Medvedev added that more measures could be implemented to “neutralize the European component of the US missile defense system,” concluding that all these steps could be avoided in favor of a new era of partnership between the United States and Russia if Washington so desired.
The US Dilemma
The United States was expected to respond to Russia’s renewed strategy during the Dec. 8 meeting between NATO and Russian foreign ministers in Brussels. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton avoided doing so, however, reiterating that the BMD scheme was about Iran, not Russia. Clinton’s move highlights the dangerous US position with regard to Russia. Washington has no intention of abandoning its commitment to Central Europe in the face of a resurging Russia, but commitments elsewhere in the world may prevent the United States from resisting Russia in the short term.
At present, Washington is struggling to halt the deterioration of relations with Pakistan, which have reached a new low after a US helicopter strike on the Afghan-Pakistani border killed some two dozen Pakistani servicemen. After the strike, the Pakistanis forbade the shipment of fuel and supplies for the NATO-led war effort in Afghanistan across the Pakistani border, leaving the United States and its allies wholly dependent on the Northern Distribution Network, at least temporarily. Moscow used this as an opportunity to remind Washington that it could cut this alternative route, leaving NATO and the United States in a catastrophic position in Afghanistan — a move tied directly to Russia’s negotiations over missile defense.
While Russia has used previous threats against US interests, such as increased support for Iran, as leverage in its BMD negotiations, its present threat marks a new dynamic. Washington called Moscow’s bluff on its threatened support for Iran, knowing Russia also did not want a strong Iran. But it cannot so easily dismiss the specter of interrupted supplies into Afghanistan, as this puts more than 130,000 US and allied troops in a vulnerable position. Consequently, the United States must work to mitigate the BMD situation.