By Mahmood Monshipouri

The ABM system and the reemergence of the U.S.-Russia Cold War

May 16, 2016

The deployment of the ABM system (the so-called “Aegis” ballistic missile system) in Romania has resurrected fears of the old rivalry between the United States and Russia because these new U.S. bases are located in formally Warsaw Pact countries dating back to the Cold War and the former Soviet Union. 

The United States claims that these anti-ballistic missile systems are aimed at protecting only against “rogue” states, and countries like Iran that have developed or could possibly develop new capabilities to deliver long-range delivery vehicles for chemical, explosive, or nuclear-based ordinance.  Russian officials, by contrast, have expressed deep suspicions that the ABM system is actually a plan to counter Russian nuclear missile capabilities and gain a pronounced strategic advantage over them—and not to safeguard Europe and the Middle East from Iranian missiles.

The NATO military and alliance-based expansion to Eastern Europe has rekindled new fears among Russian officials, who have warned against the unintended consequences.  Meanwhile, the United States has asserted that the establishment of an $800 million missile shield in Romania is defensive in nature and that the site is operational and capable of shooting down rockets from countries such as Iran that could potentially reach major European cities in the near future.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claims that the creation of new anti-missile sites in Romania violates the 1987 arms reduction treaty that banned land-based cruise and medium-range missiles, and has sought legally binding guarantees that the United States' plans to deploy missile defense technologies in Eastern Asia are not directed against Russia.  How to satisfy Moscow’s demands for legal guarantees remains to be seen.  The question is: are the problems technical, military, or political? Perhaps more importantly, China and Russia have expressed similar concerns over U.S. military cooperation with South Korea.  They both see the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea as posing a clear threat to Russia's and China's security.

Are Russian fears warranted?  The Aegis defensive umbrella is apparently related to preparing the ground for establishing a site in Poland, which is known to become a replacement to the U.S. air base in Germany. Could this development be part of a broader attempt to move the center of NATO operations from Germany to Poland?  If the answer is yes, this may explain why such a prospect is worrisome when seen from the Russian standpoint. Andrey Kelin, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, has noted that this fear results largely from a newly emerging perception of threat among some Russians that all “this is part of the military and political containment of Russia.”  The revival of the Cold War rivalry in the formerly communist-ruled Eastern Europe, Kelin adds, could exacerbate an already tense situation between Russia and the West more generally and between Moscow and Washington more particularly. 

Arguably, Russia is justified in seeing these missile defense systems as fundamentally belligerent tools. Just because they pose no clear and present danger to Russia, it does not follow that removing the mutual deterrent capabilities of evenly matched nuclear forces can be perceived in any neutral sense. Removing the ability of one state to effectively respond to a ballistic missile attack cannot be viewed simply as defensive.  Rather, it is by its nature an offensive and provocative act that could bear unforeseen—if not unthinkable—consequences. It appears that Russian officials are trying to drive home one key point: the U.S.-led alliance is likely to encircle Russia and undermine its strategic assets around the Black Sea and its naval fleet operations there. Whether this site may be upgraded in ways that could pose threats to Russian security remains to be seen.  If Russia and the United States fail to bridge their differences over the U.S. missile defense system in Europe, the consequences are likely to be destabilizing for the region and beyond. The ineluctable question is: Are we in a nuclear arms race again? The evidence points in that direction.


Mahmood Monshipouri teaches Middle Eastern Politics at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley.




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