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Russian Concerns on US Anti-Missile Shield

Vladimir Putin's rhetoric at the Munich Security Conference of February 2007 resembled the verbal exchanges between Moscow and Washington during the cold war. This article analyses the US strategic defence initiatives in Europe, their implications for the regional balance of power and why Russia is exercised about US plans.

Russian Concerns on US Anti-Missile Shield

Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric at the Munich Security Conference of February 2007 resembled the verbal exchanges between Moscow and Washington during the cold war. This article analyses the US strategic defence initiatives in Europe, their implications for the regional balance of power and why Russia is exercised

about US plans.


he new tension between Russia and the US due to the proposed US anti-missile shield has revived memory of the cold war as the proposal could spark a new arms race. Russia is asserting its role in the global scheme of things, and views with suspicion the US’ ambitious plans to base some of the antimissile shield in central Europe. As this could upset the strategic balance in weapons positioning Russia has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)1 treaty, if the US continues with its plan. This has further heightened tensions. The scenario portends an ominous future with all the features of the cold war. However, the scope for dialogue has not totally ended and the prospect of reaching an amicable settlement of the crisis seems possible.

Munich Conference

The speech of Russian president, Vladimir Putin at the Munich conference on Security Policy on February 10, 2007 triggered fears of a new cold war. Putin at Munich embarked on criticism of the US policy which is “forcing its will on the world”. The presence of political and military leaders from 40 countries, especially from the west, might have motivated Putin to raise this discordant note. Besides, this occasion might have provided him the opportunity to reflect on the emerging Russian foreign policy which has of late become increasingly assertive. The president argued that “the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world”, obviously making an indirect reference to the US role in Iraq, Iran, Balkans, expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the proposed establishment of an anti-missile shield in eastern Europe.

The long speech of Putin at Munich can be summarised under four heads multipolarism, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union and militarisation of outer space. Putin made a case for reconfiguration of the global security architecture and in this venture he placed great hope in the UN. Arguing that the new centres of global economic growth would determine the political centres of influence (making an obvious reference to the rise of China and India), the Russian leader criticised the use of force by regional bodies such as NATO and the EU. For Russia, Putin argued, “the use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN”, and NATO or EU cannot be a substitute for the world body.

Russia also opposed the expansion of NATO as it “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust”. In the post-cold war scenario, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, when there are no bloc politics, Putin argued against the continuance of such a body created for military purposes. Its expansion is needed neither for any modernisation of the alliance itself nor for ensuring security in Europe. In the context of European security, Putin mentioned the significance of the treaty on CFE, signed in 1999 but ratified only by four states including Russia. Though the treaty took into account a new geopolitical reality, namely, the elimination of the Warsaw bloc, it has not yet been ratified by all signatories.

The part of Putin’s speech which led to subsequent diplomatic concerns was his strong denunciation of attempts to militarise outer space. The Russian leader was probably referring to the recent US plans to build up an anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. In Russia’s opinion, the militarisation of outer space could have unpredictable consequences for the international community, and provoke nothing less than the beginning of a nuclear arms race. Terming the US plans a disturbing factor, he warned the inevitability of an arms race. He also contradicted any prospects of a missile strike by the so-called “rogue states” such as North Korea through western Europe as it “obviously contradicts (the) law of ballistics”, as that country can target the US through the Pacific. As regards Iran’s capabilities Putin asserted that the country does not possess a missile with that kind of a range.

Some commentators likened Putin’s remarks to “Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the UN table” during the heydays of the cold war. Some western scholars characterised Russia’s postulations as mere display of its thirst for an opportunity to show off its rising geo political and economic ambitions. However, the Russians interpreted Putin’s speech differently. Some emphasised that Russia has emerged from its weak and fragile position of the 1990s and the time had arrived for it to assert its position in international politics.

Irrespective of the many interpretations of Putin’s speech, one thing seems to be clear: a new confrontationist posture between the west and Russia has emerged.

Anti-Missile Shield Crisis

The anti-missile shield project in Europe was unveiled by the US in January 2007. It aims at deploying a radar system in Czech Republic and 10 interceptors in Poland by 2012. The main purpose of the anti-missile shield, as stated by the US is to intercept potential missile attacks from states such as North Korea and Iran. To the objections that Iran does not have missiles which can target the US or Europe, the advocates of the shield argue that there exists the possibility that it can acquire these weapons in the near future. Both Poland and Czech Republic have agreed to deploy parts of the US missile-defence system on their territories.

Moscow expressed strong reservations against the proposed anti-missile shield. The concerns of Russia are multiple: First, the Russian establishment considers the proposed shield as a threat to the security of Russia, if not at present, then in the near future. It would be the first time,

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

since the end of the cold war, that an extensive US armament system which can potentially intercept Russian non-strategic missiles is deployed close to Russian borders. It may not pose an immediate threat to Russia’s strategic missile system but the fear is that, gradually, with perfection of the anti-missile system, this capability may be achieved.

Second, Russia argues that the antimissile system violates the CFE treaty, which stipulates the withdrawal of NATO forces from the former Soviet sphere. The establishment of the anti-missile shield would advance the alliance’s infra structure towards the Russian border, not only threatening Russian security but also reducing trust between NATO and Russia. To counter the US plans, Russia on February 19, 2007 reportedly threatened to withdraw from 1987 INF treaty with the US limiting short- and medium-range missiles in Europe, thus making the Czech Republic and Poland vulnerable to a Russian missile strike. Russian production of a new generation of intermediate-range missiles could trigger a new arms race. Freedom from CFE military restrictions could allow Moscow to build up a troop presence in the “frozen” regions like Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, thus creating further instability in the region.

Putin mentioned this in Munich – Russia considers the shield as a pretext on part of the US to dominate the world. According to Russian military expert Alexander Golts, “Moscow considers that what is happening diminishes its status as a great nuclear superpower, and this is why it is reacting so harshly”. Bush’s recent statement that Russia has “derailed” democratic reforms might have further fuelled such a perception.

Fourth, the most perplexing for Moscow is the American refusal to accept its proposal to use the Soviet era radar system at Gabala, Azerbaijan. Putin suggested, both at G-8 summit in Germany on June 7, 2007 and during his meeting with his US counterpart George Bush at Kennebunkport on July 22, 2007 a simpler and less expensive – nearly cost-free for the US and also the most efficient – way of resolving the “Iranian problem”. He proposed that the Soviet era radar station in Azerbaijan could be used instead of establishing a new system in the Czech Republic. At the G-8 summit Putin stated that “… the existing agreement (with Azerbaijan) allows us to do that. Azerbaijan’s president stressed that he will be more than happy if his country can make a contribution towards international security”. He also suggested that the proposed missile-defence plans should be broadened by including European countries and that the NATO-Russia Council would be the right platform for the talks.

The missile controversy has evoked mixed reactions among the countries of the world. Russia’s threat that it would withdraw from INF and retarget missiles at Europe if Washington pushes ahead with the shield has exacerbated tensions. Countries like Belarus observed that NATO enlargement and the planned deployment of elements of the US missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic constitute a much greater security threat to other European countries than to Belarus. Germany has expressed concern that the project may “undermine stability and split Europe”. The Chinese commentators dubbed the American move as a vestige of the “cold war mentality”. Joint military exercises with about 6,500 soldiers and 500 military vehicles from the six countries of the Shanghai Co operation Organisation (SCO) in Russia and China from August 9-17, 2007, code-named “Peace Mission 2007” is considered by analysts as reflecting a scenario in which SCO can act as a counterweight to NATO. Russia places great hopes on this orga nisation and this Peace Mission demonstrates the growing importance of SCO.

The secretary-general of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, admitted that the alliance and Russia have “fundamental differences of opinion” on the US missiledefence initiative, the final status of Kosovo, and the CFE. Emphasising common goals and Russia’s partnership role with NATO, Scheffer emphasised “that nobody wants a new cold war. Washington has rather adopted a conciliatory approach to Russia’s sharp tongue, though the plans for the anti-missile system in Europe remain unchanged.” President Bush dispatched his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, to Brussels and Berlin in February 2007 for talks with NATO and the Russian leadership. The US assistant secretary of state John Rood led talks in Washington on July 31, 2007 with Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Kislyak and with the military and intelligence officials on the missile-defence system. On August 1, Interfax quoted the

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Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007 US Ambassador to Russia, William Burns, as saying that he is sure that the two countries will be able to work out a “common approach” to missile defence.

Beyond the Cold War

Russian claim to the Arctic floor might have irked the US and the EU, but it has not dampened the relations further. Interestingly, both the US and Russia have not cancelled their proposed joint military exercises in Torgau, Germany later this year. Putin in his meeting with the participants in a Russian-US working group on July 20, 2007 said, “We cannot afford Russia-US relations depending on current political trends in our countries, and we cannot afford our relations serving current trends …” His words are indicative that the present turmoil marks a temporary phase in bilateral relations and the coming days are likely to show a better appreciation of each other’s position and concerns on various issues, including the proposed anti-missile defence shield.

It would be disastrous to revive the politics of the cold war in the 21st century. Dialogue and reconciliation rather than confrontation have become the central pillars of conflict resolution in 21st century. The emerging challenges such as international terrorism, organised crime and drug trafficking, climate protection, nuclear energy and non-proliferation issues, global energy security, and the exploration of outer space can only be met with joint efforts and cooperation. Being the most powerful countries of the world, Russia and the US can work together to realise these objectives. Email:



1 The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty stipulated that the Soviet Unionwould ban nuclear and conventional groundlaunched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges 500 km to 5,500 km. The treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) signed in Paris in 1990 by members of NATOand the Warsaw Pact is a landmark arms control agreement.

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

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