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Serious battles over not so serious issue

The situation around the proposed deployment of a missile defense system in Europe and the threat of a Russian moratorium on the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) can be traced to the ambitions and a reluctance of the sides to understand each other. This is true both of the West and Russia. The result may be an unwarranted and unwanted aggravation of relations.

There are many rational grounds for Russia to be displeased with the deployment of the American missile defense elements in Europe and the situation over the CFE. Practically all the Russian military experts are aware that the American national missile defense (NMD) in its present shape, given its technical capabilities, poses no threat to the Russian strategic nuclear forces. However, Russian observers are still puzzled by the choice of Poland and the Czech Republic as the sites for the NMD facilities.

Surely, the American military cannot seriously believe, first, that Iran is capable of building intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and second, of delivering them to the U.S. territory. Both projections belong in the realm of psychiatry rather than military or political forecasting. This naturally suggests to the Russians that the NMD is aimed against Russia, and not against Iran. And there is a growing sense that the missiles to be installed in silos in Poland will be not the ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles, but medium-range missiles within a very short striking distance of targets in the European part of Russia.

Furthermore, the 1987 Treaty on Medium and Shorter Range Missiles bans missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers only for Russia and the U.S. This doesn’t worry the U.S. too much because it has no enemies in the Western Hemisphere. The situation is not so simple for Russia. Many countries on the perimeter of the Russian borders already have, or are creating medium and shorter-range missiles. They include Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea. Among these countries, only India and North Korea are unlikely potential enemies of Russia.

This gives Russia a great temptation to renounce the Medium and Shorter-Range Missile Treaty. The medium-range missiles deployed in the Urals and Siberia can reach any point in Europe and Asia to compensate for the American missile defense system in Eastern Europe and the missile arsenals of the above-mentioned Asian countries, without bringing in more valuable and expensive ICBMs.

As regards the CFE Treaty, it was signed in a totally different geopolitical situation and is largely irrelevant. There are several reasons why Moscow is displeased with the current situation. Above all, it is the presence of the “gray zone” in the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are not CFE members and theoretically can have their own armed forces of any strength and foreign troops of any size on their territories). In addition, there are flank limitations when Russia, first, cannot freely deploy forces on its own territory, and second, the Bulgarian and Rumanian Armed Forces are still considered to be “Warsaw Treaty” forces although the two countries have long joined NATO. Nor can one tolerate the failure of NATO countries to ratify the “adapted CFE Treaty”, although Russia has withdrawn all its troops from Georgia and has a very small force in Moldavia, which has no heavy equipment and whose duty is to guard the huge ammunition dumps left over from the Soviet Army. In this case, the Russian troops are in fact protecting Europe from an uncontrolled spread of huge quantities of weaponry and explosives from these dumps.

Russia’s grievances about CFE are well justified, but they are largely theoretical. In reality, neither Russia, nor any NATO countries are using up their quotas for any of the five classes of equipment, be it under the “old CFE” of 1990 or the “adapted CFE”. The armies of the Baltic countries and Slovenia, which are not CFE members, are purely symbolic in size and there are no foreign contingents on their territories (except the 4 fighter planes at a Lithuanian airfield which rotate on a six-month basis). On none of the five classes of weapons limited under the CFE Treaty does NATO have as much as a 3:1 superiority over Russia, whereas NATO’s economic superiority over Russia (in terms of absolute GDP) is 30-fold.
So, it is absolutely not in Russia’s interests to break off the treaty because it would give NATO a theoretical chance to parlay its economic superiority into military superiority. The question is whether the European NATO countries want to be drawn into a new arms race.
Besides, if such a race is resumed, after all, Russia would definitely pull out of the Medium and Shorter-Range Missile Treaty to make up for its lag in conventional arms.
It should be noted that the resumption of the Pioneer medium-range missiles production would not be a fundamental problem for Russia because they are essentially analogous to the currently produced Russian Topol ICBMs, except that they have two instead of three stages.       
By Alexander Khramchikhin, Chief Analyst with the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, for RIA Novosti.

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