Over the weekend, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that the United States has refused Russia’s requests to discuss the US/NATO missile defense system being constructed in Eastern Europe. His comments were made while attending the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la 15 Dialogue in Singapore. He was also quoted as calling the system ‘very dangerous’. The public statements by Antonov, as well as those made by Putin last month were likely intended to nudge the Obama administration towards reconsidering its decision. Unfortunately for Moscow, President Obama refuses to discuss Russia’s concerns about missile defense. For all intents and purposes, the diplomatic avenue for Vladimir Putin to seek a compromise on the US-led initiative is closed.
Russia’s actions and behavior over the past two and a half years severely limit its diplomatic currency with the US and Europe. In the face of Russia deliberately increasing tensions with NATO member states, its annexation of Crimea, support of Ukrainian separatists, and its involvement in Syria, why should Washington want to open serious talks with Moscow on this matter? Putin needs to understand the box he has placed himself in. He has used a US missile defense system in Europe to whip up anti-US and nationalistic sentiments in Russia. With a fraction of the system now operational, Putin has to be seen by his constituents as doing something about it. Diplomatic efforts were his best avenue to reach a compromise on the missile shield, even though he cannot bargain from a position of strength. For the time being, that option is off the table, however. Putin will have to consider an alternative approach for contending with the missile shield.
Unfortunately, the non-diplomatic alternatives leave much to be desired. All of them come equipped with a hearty helping of risk and danger, while others are blueprints for nuclear war. If Putin chooses to launch a conventional strike against the Aegis Ashore components, a nuclear war could be the result. A Russian attack against a NATO member will force the alliance to respond accordingly. Russian air strikes against the Aegis Ashore site in Romania, for example, would be answered by NATO airstrikes against Russian bases in Crimea. Where the situation goes from there is anyone’s guess. Escalation leading to a wider NATO-Russia conflict perhaps, or worse.
If Putin sincerely believes that the missile defense system will effectively negate Russia’s strategic forces, the nuclear option becomes a very possible course of action for him. One of the reasons why the US refuses to open talks on its missile defense is that it does not believe Putin would risk a nuclear war over Aegis Ashore, despite what he says publicly. Most people would like to assume the same, however, it is anyone’s guess what the Russian President’s mode of thinking is. He has won on risky foreign policy gambles in the past. Who is to say he would not take a calculated risk now when the stakes are so high?
In spite of the fact that the US claims its missile defense system is in place to defend against Iranian missiles, Putin remains skeptical. Inside of the Russian Federation the majority of citizens view the US reassurances suspiciously. Those same people are looking to Putin right now in expectation of a response, and at the moment his options are limited to non-existent. As more Aegis Ashore components are constructed, and a new administration takes the helm in Washington next January, Putin could approach the US again, in a more conciliatory manner, and encourage talks.
At current, Russia’s only viable option is to accept the placement of the system on its front doorstep. Moscow needs to exercise patience and sound judgement in the coming year and show the West that it is no longer a potential threat. It cannot rely on coercive leverage, and the application of economic and military pressure upon NATO, and Europe to achieve its strategic objectives. None of those actions have been successful. Instead, they have had the opposite reaction and helped recommission containment as the predominant Western defense policy regarding Russia.