Missile Defense and New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty START

Shortly after the Russian invasion of Georgia, Poland had agreed to host missile interceptors, one part of a missile defense system that we had designed to stop missiles fired from the Middle East from hitting either Europe or the United States. Senior Russian military officials let the Polish government know that if it went ahead with the deployment of the missile defense system, Poland could expect to become a nuclear target. The Czechs had agreed to host the radar component of the defense system, and about the time the announcement was made, Russia cut back on oil deliveries to the Czech Republic.

Dick Cheney, In My Time


Following the Second World War, the tremendous destructive power of nuclear weapons had prompted efforts to construct missile defense (MD) systems capable of intercepting and neutralizing launched warheads before they could reach their targets. Of course, the procurement of nuclear weapons by aggressive communist regimes, such as the Soviet Union (1949) and China (1964), provided impetus for the development of missile defense technology in the United States. Communist states, in turn, channeled large amounts of resources to keep up with American missile defense efforts. The U.S. initiated work on its first missile defense system – the Nike-Zeus project – in 1957. In the wake of the Soviet deployment of the Galosh System in 1966, the U.S. announced the deployment of the Sentinel System the following year. Yet, it was only in 1969 that both President Nixon and the U.S. Senate eventually confirmed the decision to deploy the system, now renamed Safeguard.

During the 1970s, detente policies resulted in a setback for missile defense technology research and development. The U.S.-Soviet ABM Treaty of 1972 banned nationwide missile defenses, allowing each side only two MD sites with a maximum number of 100 interceptors per site. The 1974 amendment to this treaty reduced the number of sites to one. In addition, during the late 1970s, the Safeguard system was terminated altogether.

The assumption of the Presidency by Ronald Reagan reversed this trend. The 40th POTUS sought to not only keep the rising tide of communist global expansion at bay, but to actually win (and end) the Cold War. Hoping to render “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete” – thereby removing the specter of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) – Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), mockingly dubbed “Star Wars” by its opponents, in 1983. While Reagan saw a nuclear-weapon-free world as a noble and desirable objective, he prudently viewed missile defense as an indispensible guarantor of national security. Thus, he refused any Soviet overtures which demanded the scrapping of SDI as the price for bilateral nuclear disarmament. However, he pendulum swung back during the 1990s, as missile defense stalled as a result of the implosion of the USSR and expectations of the so-called “peace dividend.” The administration of George H.W. Bush also signed two nuclear arms reduction treaties with Moscow, i.e. START I (1989) and START II (1993), limiting the number of deployed warheads to 6,000 and 3,000-3,500 for each country respectively. The succeeding Clinton administration vacillated on the issue of missile defense, only to defer the deployment decision to the next administration in September of 2000, i.e. shortly before leaving office in the wake of the November presidential election.

George W. Bush chose to proceed with deployment. Reasoning that the United States must be free to shape its own anti-missile defense architecture in accordance with America’s national interests, he also withdrew from the ABM Treaty of 1972. At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century the U.S. was faced with numerous threats in the post-Cold War world, including that of rogue states such as communist North Korea and the Islamist regime in Iran) and primarily Islamist terrorist movements attempting to obtain nuclear weapons; and, a resurgent, increasingly assertive post-Soviet Russia which, under Vladimir Putin, embarked on a major effort to modernize its nuclear forces.

In response to these imminent dangers, as well as to protect forward deployed U.S. forces and American allies, the Bush administration decided to bolster its missile shield by deploying certain components on the territory of pro-American new NATO member states in Central Europe. This involved, in particular, a radar station in the Czech Republic, and ten silo-based interceptors in Poland. Yet, ratification was delayed because the leaders in Prague and Warsaw faced public opinion polls, which no-doubt were influenced by post-Soviet Russia, and therefore reflected an alleged negative attitude of most Czechs and Poles towards the missile shield. Moreover, the Civic Platform Party-dominated Polish government – which took over from the pro-American Law and Justice Party cabinet in 2007 – was more lukewarm toward the project, instead preferring to accommodate the core of the EU (“Old Europe”) and Russia, both of which opposed the shield. In the Czech Republic, the US-friendly center-right ODS Party was isolated in its unambiguous support of the shield, while the opposition Social Democrats offered increasing opposition. Those Central Europeans who support the project are much less concerned with Iranian ballistic missiles and much more with firm American security commitments against pressure from resurgent Russia; based on the historical record, they have good reason to be concerned.

Similarly, countries with long histories of conflict with Russia, such as Turkey and Georgia, have also been viewed as potential radar or interceptor sites. The former, although a NATO member, is currently ruled by “democratic” Islamists and has put forward conditions. Accordingly, the Turks state that they would gladly host an TPY-2 radar on their territory, provided that pertinent information is not shared with Israel. Further, Ankara demands complete control over any missile defense system on its soil. Thus, Senators Jon Kyl and Mark Kirk have proposed that the radar be deployed in neighboring Georgia instead. In late September 2011, Georgia’s President, the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili, accepted such an idea with great enthusiasm. Given Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, coupled with the de factoannexation of two Georgian provinces (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Tbilisi is eager to obtain American and/or NATO security guarantees against further Russian aggression.

As Prague and Warsaw vacillated, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, scrapped his predecessor’s missile shield, incredibly announcing his decision on September 17, 2009, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland to partition the country in agreement with Stalin’s Nazi allies. The new administration promised to replace the Bush missile shield with a new so-called “phased adaptive approach,” combining land and sea-based defenses, sometime in the future. Even so, the decision was interpreted by many in the United States, Europe, and Russia, as a concession to placate Moscow for the price of obtaining Russian assistance against Tehran’s nuclear program, despite the fact that Moscow was building and fueling its client’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. Obama’s early 2009 secret letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to suggest such a quid pro quo. This move was an element of Obama’s new policy, aiming to “reset” U.S. relations with Moscow.

Simultaneously, the Obama administration negotiated and signed New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with the Russians, which, in the face of stiff Republican Party opposition, was rushed for ratification and forced for a vote by a Democrat Party-controlled lame duck Senate, in late December 2010. The treaty cut the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half, limiting each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, in addition to 800 non-deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and/or heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons. These numbers are lower than all previous treaties (START I, II, and the 2002 Treaty of Moscow).

In a December 13th letter released by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Senator Rick Santorum and former UN Ambassador John Bolton, they urged, “all Senators to oppose the New START treaty until the House has been able to hold the deliberations that incoming Chairman McKeon has called for, until the Senate is granted full access to the treaty’s negotiating history, until New START codifies America’s right to develop our missile defense systems without limitation within the treaty text itself, and until the Senate has been able to consider and vote on all other serious and substantive amendments that are offered…Doing so will send a much-needed message of strength and resolve to both friends and adversaries.”

Although the New START has allowed the Obama administration to claim that an important step has been made toward a world free of nuclear weapons, not to mention improved U.S.-Russian relations, the treaty’s critics have pointed out its serious flaws. To begin with, as former nuclear arms reduction treaty negotiator and ex-CIA director, R. James Woolsey has pointed out in a November 15th Wall Street Journal op-ed, the new treaty’s verification mechanisms are quite unsatisfactory. Also, given Moscow’s long record of deception, the fact that New START only allows the U.S. to inspect declared Russian sites opens a large breach for the Russians to exploit. In addition, the agreement fails to limit Russia’s tactical “battlefield” nuclear weapons, an area in which the Kremlin surpasses the Americans.

Ed Meese, former attorney general and member of the National Security Council, along with assistant secretary of defense, Richard Perle, both of whom served in the Reagan administration, wrote in a December 2nd Wall Street Journal op-ed also questioning New START’s verification provisions. “There are many reasons why this treaty falls short of those negotiated by President Reagan. For one thing, its verification regime is inadequate. For another, it gives the Kremlin an unwarranted influence over the structure of our nuclear deterrent. Most important, it will almost certainly reduce our freedom to deploy vital defenses against ballistic missiles.”

Most importantly, the Obama administration assured the American public that the New START would in no way affect our missile defense capabilities. Yet, the treaty’s preamble speaks of an “interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms,” thereby opening a gaping loophole to potentially link the limitation of offensive nuclear arms and defensive anti-missile networks. Not surprisingly, this is precisely how the Kremlin has chosen to interpret this wording. Thus, in early February 2011, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Ryabkov warned that “if the U.S. increases the qualitative and quantitative potential of its missile defense (…) a question will arise whether Russia should further abide by the treaty or would have to take other measures to respond to the situation, including military-technical measures.” Such Russian blackmail indicates that New START is a political failure and diplomatic embarrassment built upon wishful thinking.

However, it was not predictable that the Russian Federation, the main successor state of the Soviet Union and the heir of its sizeable nuclear arsenal, would emerge as the main and most vocal critic of a viable missile defense system to protect America and its allies. Russia has protested vehemently against the deployment of the components of a U.S.-NATO missile shield in Central Europe. But Moscow did not have to choose that path.

Donald Rumsfeld in August 2001 making his first trip to Moscow since becoming George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and President Vladimir Putin to discuss America’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Putin informed Rumsfeld that he was not wedded to the MAD doctrine and that he understood America’s missile defense system. Rumsfeld writes in his memoir entitled Known and Unknown, “Putin said he understood that our proposed missile defense system would be small scale, designed to deter and defend against rogue states. He knew well it could be overwhelmed by Russia’s arsenal, and that once operational, the system could successfully defend against handfuls, not thousands, of missiles.”

There are two stated reasons for its opposition. First of all, Moscow claims that the shield would imperil its nuclear deterrent. In other words, a missile defense system would effectively remove Russia’s ability to blackmail Europe with its nuclear missiles. Secondly, in spite of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc – and a clear message sent by the peoples of East-Central Europe that Russian domination is, at best, an unwelcome nuisance – the Kremlin continues to view its former Central European satellites (who are now NATO members) as its “near abroad” an element within its sphere of influence. This reveals that Russia’s antagonistic conception of its relations with the Western world has not changed since the Cold War. In fact, Moscow did not curtail its activities against the U.S., now reclassified as the “main target.” KGB/SVR spymaster Sergei Tretyakov, who defected to the FBI in October 2000, warns Americans in Pete Earley’s 2007 book, Comrade J, “As a people, you are very naïve about Russia and its intentions. You believe because the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russia is now your friend. It isn’t, and I can show you how the SVR is trying to destroy the U.S. even today and even more than the KGB did during the Cold War.”

Of course, Moscow has attempted to pose as helpful and cooperative by offering to assist in the creation of a joint NATO-Russian missile defense system. Such a proposal is at once an attempt to derail or gain control of such a system. It is also an effort to embarrass and “unmask” the United States, which points to the Islamist regime in Iran as the main motivating factor behind the missile shield.

Moscow utilizes the rogue regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang as pawns in its grand strategy. Both the Islamists ruling Iran and the communists lording it over North Korea serve as Russian proxies to intimidate and terrify the West. At the same time, the Kremlin treats these informal allies as bargaining chips. Even so, it would be naïve to expect Russia to simply abandon the Islamist regime in exchange for strategic advantages in other areas. Most likely, Moscow would strive to ensure that the Iranian threat could be reactivated whenever needed.

At his Senate confirmation hearing in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld raised both the cost effectiveness of a missile defense system and the need to protect American cities from attack. “I pointed out that the defense budget was less than 3 percent of our country’s gross domestic product, and that missile defense was less than 3 percent of the defense budget.” He queried, “Was the prospect of protecting Los Angeles or Atlanta from a dictator with a rogue missile not worth the cost?”

Russia has been employing the strategy of divide et impera in the West itself. Thus, it has been cultivating the Europeans, and particularly the Germans and the French, through its position on the NATO Russia Council, to build a coalition opposing a missile defense system which excludes Russia or one that supports the architecture of incorporation.

In this context, it is crucial for the West to view Russian protests and proposals with a cool and skeptical realism. These should not be taken at face value but, rather, interpreted as elements of a clever geostrategic game in which Russia employs every tool to maneuver for maximum advantage.

President Reagan saw his policy of “Peace Through Strength” as the best avenue to restore America’s military strength and to prevent war, while promoting peace and freedom.


  1. The United States shall give formal notice of withdrawal from the New START agreement.

  2. Protecting America and its allies from a nuclear attack requires the U.S. to preserve its nuclear arsenal by modernizing its aging stockpile – just like Putin’s Russia has – and thereby remain the world’s leading nuclear power.

  3. The United States cannot afford to allow Russia – or any other foreign state(s) – to dictate how to guard its national security interests. Washington shall make this absolutely clear to Moscow and other capitals. Given the dangers of nuclear proliferation, a robust missile defense system constitutes an essential and indispensable component of U.S. national security.


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