By Bari Schwartz
A U.S.-NATO plan to create a new missile defense system in Europe has Russian President Vladimir Putin concerned about his country’s military status. Putin recently addressed Russia’s defense ministry and military leaders, saying the country is seeing “insistent attempts” to alter the balance of power with the new missile defense system in Europe through the continued growth of NATO by eastern European countries once part of the Soviet republic.
“Geopolitical developments call for our response to be well-calculated and quick…The Russian armed forces must move to a dramatically new level of capabilities …” Putin said, calling for changes to be made “in three to five years.”
The missile defense system in Europe would be aimed at monitoring ballistic missile and weapon threats from Iran. Policies and statements made by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have the United States weary about Iran’s objectives for nuclear development. However, Russia believes that the plan is intended to “counter its own missiles.” Russia’s concern is that the defense system will create “a missile defense umbrella” for the United States against Russian missile attacks.
Iran, a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) had stated that its nuclear activities are not intended for violence. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found Iran to be uncooperative with the provisions stated in the treaty. Today there is consensus by members of the international community that “Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons” and that it would be a “serious blow to the NPT if Iran were to do so.”
Four years ago, the EastWest Institute brought together experts, scientific and academic leaders from Russia and the United States to discuss the potential threats from Iran, ultimately producing a Joint Threat Assessment (JTA). While participants from both states agreed that a nuclear Iran is dangerous, there was and continues to be disagreement on Iran’s pace of building weapons and missiles. In addition, Russia has suggested making stronger ties with Iran while the United States wants tougher sanctions to curb the possible production of nuclear arms.
Nonetheless, the experts involved in the JTA realized that the need to determine the extent of threats from Iran should be their first priority. This Track 2 effort to bridge the gap between Russia and the United States was a positive step to soften current strained relations between the two countries.
Despite this joint venture, the current stance by President Putin may prove to be a serious blow to already faltering U.S.–Russia relations. Trust-building initiatives will be increasingly important if plans for a missile defense system in Europe continue. The perception of threats can lead to hasty and impulsive actions but, following further cooperation from both sides to understand Iran’s motivations, unnecessary action can be substituted with meaningful dialogue.
Bari Schwartz is a development intern at the EastWest Institute’s New York Center.