20 years under Putin: a timeline

The decision to cancel Phase 4 of the planned US missile defense system in Europe, recently announced by the Pentagon, is good news for the Kremlin. Yet, according to Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Moscow may use it not to soften its stance, but to seek further concessions from the Obama administration.



US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced that Washington is restructuring its missile defense plans to “stay ahead” of threats posed by Iran and North Korea, especially in view of North Korea’s recent advances in missile technology and increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Washington will deploy an additional 14 ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska by the end of 2017. It will also set up a second missile tracking station in Japan. The United States already maintains a sea-based missile defense system around Japan and South Korea. Both countries host Patriot 3 antimissile batteries.

At the same time, the US effectively canceled the final phase of a missile defense system based in Europe, which was strongly opposed by the Russian leadership and repeatedly cited by Moscow as a major obstacle to cooperation on nuclear arms reduction and other issues. Just as they did in 2009, when the White House canceled an earlier antimissile plan, Pentagon officials said that Russia’s opposition played no role in the decision to reconfigure the antimissile system. They acknowledged, however, the potential benefits that might result if the decision were received positively in Moscow, as well as the chance of continued difficulties, since the United States will still proceed with Phase 2 of the program—the deployment of an Aegis missile antimissile base in Romania by 2015—and a Phase 3 deployment of missile interceptors and the establishment of an advanced command and control station in Poland.

Pentagon officials said that Russia’s opposition played no role in its decision to reconfigure the antimissile system.

The Kremlin at first appeared surprised by Hagel’s announcement and reacted defensively. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Kommersant that he felt no “euphoria,” because he saw no concessions to Russia in the move. Ryabkov insisted that Moscow would continue to seek a legally binding agreement that the Western defense shield would not be aimed at Russia’s nuclear forces. In an interview with Interfax, Vyacheslav Nikonov, first deputy chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that the missile shield’s first three stages were already enough of a threat. Other Russian officials said the cancellation of Phase 4 was only a technical delay. Once the US financial situation improved and development problems were overcome, they argued, the antimissile system would be deployed in Europe.

By the end of the month, however, the atmosphere quickly improved. On March 21, after a meeting in Geneva with Rose Goettemoeller, US Acting Undersecretary of State for arms control, Ryabkov announced that there had been progress in the negotiations. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that Russian and US officials had agreed to meet in Moscow in May to discuss Washington’s decision to curtail its missile defense plans. The two sides also renewed serious talks on nonproliferation efforts, which had long been stalled.


At their meeting in Seoul in March 2012, Barack Obama (left) promised Dmitri Medvedev “more flexibility” on missile defense after the US presidential election.


The United States, like Russia, views the missile defense dispute through the prism of broader domestic and international agendas that give little grounds for believing there will be quick progress. Last year, Obama was strongly criticized by his Republican opponents after he was heard on an open microphone telling then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in a private conversation that he would have “more flexibility” in missile defense talks after the election in November. As Obama’s ambitious effort to broadly “reset” relations with Moscow has faltered, however, the White House has increasingly concentrated its efforts on reaching an arms deal with Moscow. But in doing so, it has deemphasized the promotion of human rights, to the dismay of many in the Senate who might be called upon to vote in favor of an antimissile treaty. Many in Congress also oppose any restrictions on US antimissile research. In response, the administration is actively considering circumventing the treaty ratification process altogether.

In Moscow, Vladimir Putin has kept the disagreement over missile defense simmering as a central element in his anti-American campaign, which has ranged from recent sanctions against US nongovernmental organizations to the banning of American adoptions of Russian children. In the eyes of the Russian government, any major concessions to the West would undermine the image that the Kremlin has built up over the years of Russia as a fortress surrounded by enemies. In late February, for example, Putin said that US military ambitions in Eurasia were upsetting the strategic balance of power in the region. There are signs that the “external enemy” image is becoming harder to maintain, however, as parts of Russian society develop better awareness of the outside world through wider access to information and expanded opportunities to travel. According to the widely respected Levada Center, 50 percent of Russians in January 2013 had a generally positive view of the United States.

The Russian national security establishment is hostile to the idea of any “enemy” military presence along Russia’s periphery.

But other factors will make progress difficult. First, the ethos of the Russian national security establishment is hostile to the idea of any “enemy” military presence along Russia’s periphery and uncomfortable with Obama’s “utopian” antinuclear rhetoric. Secondly, though many elites realize that the small US antimissile system does not threaten the country’s strategic forces, it could provide a foothold the United States could later exploit if it achieved a technological breakthrough that would allow it to deploy a broader, much more threatening system. The elites in Moscow view the preservation and modernization of Russia’s nuclear force as essential to its status as a great power. Finally, the United States is a convenient enemy for the Russian military-industrial complex, which is lobbying for (and receiving) greater military spending.

We thus should not hope for quick change, notes Vladimir Dvorkin, an expert with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. Nevertheless, US decisions do offer Russian leaders a chance to rethink their previous positions. “After all, they were talking so much about the threat posed by Phase 4 of the missile defense project for Europe,” says Dvorkin, “and now it’s apparently not going to happen at all. We may hope that that will gradually change their minds. But, on the other hand, they can always find reasons not to.” The Kremlin may also calculate that prolonged negotiations or an outright “nyet” might tempt the Obama administration to make further concessions.