Latest developments in missile defense talks with the United States

The United States has made some new proposals to Russia regarding plans to deploy US missile defense elements in Europe. Russia seems to find them unsatisfactory; it is still calling for joint reassessment of the Iranian missile threat.

The United States has made some new proposals to Russia regarding plans to deploy US missile defense elements in Europe. The Russian Foreign Ministry told us that Moscow is not satisfied with these proposals.

Washington’s new proposals were first mentioned publicly last week by John Rood, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. He did not describe them in detail, saying only that the document delivered to Russia proposes giving Russia access to US missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Rood noted that Moscow received the proposals before President Dmitri Medvedev delivered his address to parliament (November 5), threatening to station Iskander missile systems in the Kaliningrad region if US missile defense elements are installed in Eastern Europe. Rood described some of Medvedev’s remarks about the missile defense system as “disappointing” and “unwelcome,” adding that some nuclear arms reduction proposals have also been sent to Moscow.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov confirmed on November 7 that the American proposals have been received. He declined to make any detailed comments: “We are studying them and we are prepared to resume dialogue. After our analysis is complete, we shall agree on a date for the next round of consultations on this topic.”

Moscow’s restrained reaction to the news of new US proposals is due to the fact that the Americans leaked the news without consulting Russia. This was admitted in our interview with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, co-chairman of the Russian-American working group on strategic dialogue (the other co-chairman is John Rood).

Ryabkov declined to reveal the details of the American proposals, but hinted that Russia isn’t overjoyed by them: “They can’t really be described as proposals at all. It’s more like a statement of the outgoing US administration’s policy stance.” At some point, it seems that Moscow completely despaired of reaching agreement with the Bush administration on any key issues. Moscow simply decided to wait until a new team moves into the White House.

Ryabkov admitted that the US proposals “contain some aspects that expand our understanding of how the Americans envision Russian monitors visiting missile defense installations.” He added: “But these proposals are not far-reaching, in principle, and they will not clear up our concerns.”

Ryabkov said: “Even a permanent Russian presence at the installations in Poland and the Czech Republic wouldn’t be a solution for us. An integrated set of measures is required, and we have explained it to the Americans. We need to reach agreement on a shared evaluation of missile threats, and agree on collective measures to counter them – including missile defense installations. At present, however, instead of undertaking joint efforts, they are trying to persuade us that all this isn’t aimed against Russia. This is a dead-end approach, and we will not regard it as satisfactory.”

Ryabkov told us what kind of scenario would satisfy Russia. For a start, Russia proposes to work with the USA on a joint evaluation of the extent to which Iran poses a real missile threat; then, depending on the results of this evaluation, Russia and the USA would seek ways of solving the problem. Ryabov said: “We propose that Russian elements should be included: radar stations at Gabala and Armavir, and new data exchange and processing centers. Then we should agree on decision-making methods. That would satisfy us. Anything else would not.”

The terms set out by Ryabkov indicate that Moscow is taking a tougher stance. As recently as October, in commenting on US missile defense plans, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “It is important for us to know where that radar is pointed at any given moment, and what is happening at the interceptor base in Poland.” But now it seems that Russia wouldn’t even be satisfied with a permanent presence at the missile defense installations. Then again, as Ryabkov told us, this doesn’t mean that Moscow will reject Washington’s proposals out of hand: “We shall analyze them, then discuss them. The fact that they have been presented to us is a positive sign in itself.”

Discussion of the American initiatives could start as soon as two weeks from now, when the Russian-US working group on strategic dialogue meets in Moscow. But Moscow’s proposal for shared use of the Gabala radar, as an alternative to missile defense bases in Europe, was rejected by Washington 18 months ago. Lieutenant General Henry Obering, head of the US Missile Defense Agency, said in summer of 2007 that the Gabala radar is too close to Iran to be effective in countering Tehran’s missile threat. The US position on this issue has not changed officially since then.

Moscow’s hopes are focused on the change of administration in the USA. Ryabkov said: “We hope it will be easier to deal with them, given the signals sent by some members of Obama’s campaign team.” The Kremlin will be able to test these expectations a week from now. Presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich announced on November 7 that the G20 summit in Washington on November 15 may include the first meeting between Dmitri Medvedev and Barack Obama.

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Barack Obama has negotiated with Russia before

The new president of the United States already has some experience in contacts with Russia on disarmament issues. In 2005, Senator Obama was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee – chaired by another well-known senator, Charles Lugar, co-author of the Nunn-Lugar plan, in which the USA provided WMD destruction funding to former Soviet countries.

As a Committee member, Obama gained some practical experience in communicating with Russia. In August 2005, as part of a US delegation headed by Senator Lugar, he visited the Perm region to see Russian enterprises engaged in destroying ballistic missiles: Mashinostroitel and the Polymer Materials Institute. The US delegation inspected an American-funded stand for destroying solid-fuel missile engines.

There was a major diplomatic incident at Perm Airport, when FSB Border Guards attempted to make an additional inspection of the US Air Force Douglas DC-9 aircraft transporting senators Obama and Lugar. The Americans objected, and take-off was delayed for three hours. Belatedly, the FSB decided that the plane had diplomatic status – and it was released. The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed regret “for the misunderstanding and inconvenience” and apologized; the USA declared the incident closed.

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All nonexistent Iskanders will be deployed westward

Citing a “source at the Russian Foreign Ministry,” the RIA Novosti agency reported on November 7 that five brigades of Iskander tactical missile systems will be deployed “in the western direction” by 2015. This information indicates a substantial adjustment to Russia’s plans for Iskander deployment.

Earlier, high-ranking Russian military officials had stated on more than one occasion that five brigades would be equipped with new Iskander systems – but that was supposed to be five brigades nationwide, all the way to the Russian Far East: the 26th brigade (Luga, near St. Petersburg), the 92nd brigade (Kamenka, near Penza), the 103rd brigade (Ulan-Ude), the 107th brigade (Semistochnyi, near Birobidzhan), and the 114th brigade (Znamensk, near Astrakhan).

But now the Iskanders will be delivered as a priority not only to the Kaliningrad-based 152nd missile brigade (as President Dmitri Medvedev promised in his address to parliament) and the 26th brigade, but also to the 50th (Shuya) and 448th (Kursk) brigades in the Moscow military district. Russia has no other missile brigades “in the western direction” as yet.

It’s worth noting that deliveries of Iskander systems to the Russian Armed Forces were supposed to start in 2005 (they were then promised for 2006, then 2007, and so on); but they still haven’t arrived. The only unit armed with the new missiles is the 630th (training) division of the 60th combat application center at the Kapustin Yar exercise range, which has four Iskander launch systems. Fully arming five brigades would require the Russian defense industry to deliver 60 Iskander systems (not to mention large quantities of other special hardware).