While the world's attention continues to be drawn by the birth pangs of a New , with each Friday promising more unpredictable spectacle, the talks that began in on Thursday between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and on a European anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system have taken a back seat. Brussels is a dour city in comparison with Cairo or Tehran.
But the talks in Brussels go beyond the creation of an anti-missile defense system for , shaping the direction of Russia's equations with the United States and the West and impacting significantly on security in the Middle East. These talks are a follow-up to the decision taken at the NATO summit meeting in last November, that the alliance and Russia would formulate within the scope of a joint study the terms for missile defense cooperation (so-called Euro-ABM) within an agreed timeline of June 2011.
The Barack Obama administration has done everything possible in recent days to create a positive atmosphere for the talks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out cooperation with Russia on Euro-ABM in her speech at last week's 47th Munich Security Conference. "We seek a genuinely cooperative approach ... one that strengthens cooperation with Russia and increases our common security while maintaining strategic stability. We have already started that conversation with about how this can be accomplished ... ". A new military strategy unveiled by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff on Wednesday in Washington also mentioned Russia as one of Washington's key partners in global policy.
The document said that the US intends to boost military cooperation with Russia as well as further cooperation in fighting terrorism and securing the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. It also mentioned joint space exploration and an anti-missile shield. The accommodative words must have lifted Russian spirits somewhat.
Only a week ago, cables released by WikiLeaks contained the embarrassing revelation that Obama didn't really concede anything to Russia at the end of 2009, despite the "reset" of Washington's relations with Moscow of the time. Then, Obama apparently rejected the previous US administration's plan to deploy components of the US's anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The diplomatic correspondence published by the Daily Telegraph made out that Obama made a virtue out of necessity, since Washington was facing serious technological problems with the radar system that was meant to detect long-range missiles at the launch stage. Without doubt, Russia views with suspicion the US's intentions with regard to the missile defense system. At the core of it is the suspicion that the US is bent on attaining "nuclear superiority" over Russia, which the Soviet Union had thwarted during the Cold War era.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's speech at the Munich conference underscored this fact, "I think everybody understands that the agreement to discuss ... in no way means that Russia willingly agrees to accede to the NATO program developed without Russia. The principle of 'take it or leave it' does not work here ... If our concerns are not taken into account, if no equitable joint work is achieved, then we will have to compensate for the emerging imbalance."
To quote Lavrov, "our ability to create the joint Euro-Missile Defense involving Russia and NATO will become a test of sincerity declarations of readiness for partnership, for radical transformation of the strategic context of relations, for the establishment - in fact, not just in words - of an indivisible Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community."
As far as rhetoric goes, that's fine. But the strategic and technical differences that hinder the conclusion of a joint Russia-NATO missile defense architecture in Europe are formidable. From the NATO's perspective, the format it proposed for cooperation with Russia is eminently reasonable, namely, that the two sides could have "two independent but coordinated systems".
The alliance is going ahead with the development of an indivisible and exclusive territorial missile defense capability on its own. (The Lisbon summit adopted the US's deployment plans in Europe as its national contribution to the alliance's program.) In fact, two weeks ago, on January 27, the alliance completed the first hand over of an interim theatre ballistic missile defense capability.
NATO hopes to collaborate with Russia on the exchange of information and potential synergy between the alliance's capability and Russia's own independent missile defense system, while Russia will be free to develop its own ABM architecture. However, Moscow wants a fully-fledged ABM architecture for the whole of Europe.
The painful truth is that Russia lacks the capacity to keep pace with the ABM system that will be achieved by the US by 2020, which will incorporate early-warning, air and space defense. Also, there is doubt whether the technical specifications and positioning of the Russian ABM capability will be compatible with the US's flexible and highly movable ABM assets.
In political terms, too, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty establishing NATO stipulates that collective defense is the sole responsibility of the alliance's member states. Besides, any involvement of Russia that even remotely smacks of interference with the US ABM potential is highly unlikely to be acceptable to a Republican-dominated US Congress.
On the other hand, the deployment of the US's land-based ABM asset in Poland and Rumania (expected toward 2015-2020) is perceived in Moscow as a threat to Russia's second-strike capability. The Obama administration has drawn up a "phased adaptive approach" that would emphasize deployment of sea-and land-based Standard Missile 3 interceptors around Europe. The deployment during 2011-2020 involves short-and medium-range missiles in the early stages, while calling for deployment of more advanced defenses in later years to counter intermediate-range threats and ICBMs.
Clinton stressed in her speech in Munich, "We [the US] will not accept any constraints on our missile defenses." What are Moscow's choices, given the inexorable progress of the NATO's ABM program, the US's determination to adhere to its "phased adaptive approach" and Russia's incapacity to cope with the alliance's program technologically and financially on its own?
One alternative will be to team up with and develop the two countries' joint military capacity to a level that the US can counter only at the cost of putting strains on its economy. But then, Moscow would be apprehensive that China's accelerating ballistic missile capability could pose a potential threat to Russia's security as well.
As Dmitry Trenin of Moscow Carnegie wrote recently, an alliance with China means Russia accepting the role of a "raw material base and strategic support area" for China and also relegating itself as the "younger military-political ally, ie, Beijing's vassal".
It goes without saying that stable and friendly relations with China are an imperative for Russia, and even Trenin admits, "it's adventurous to challenge these relations". All the same, the prevailing wind in Moscow doesn't seem to favor the "orientalists".
In sum, Moscow is hardly in a position to compel a fundamental shift in the course of the US's ABM program. It can retaliate, in principle, by restarting the arms race, but it can ill-afford the ensuing high financial burden and will also have to abandon in that case its ambitions of "innovation".
Short of becoming a NATO member country, therefore, if Russia's westward orientation is to be sustained, it needs to settle for a comprehensive long-term cooperation program with the alliance. The US estimation seems to be that Moscow will somehow find a way to do precisely that.
However, Russia holds a secret card - its capacity to be "non-cooperative" on issues such as the New Middle East or the situation around Iran. Amidst the chaos in Cairo, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen just visited Israel and floated the controversial idea that the alliance could step in as the peacekeeper between the Palestinians and Israel, a role that in some crucial ways President Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was hitherto performing. Quite obviously, Rasmussen mooted an American thought process.
On the other hand, Moscow has "counter-proposed" that the United Nations Security Council should depute a mission to the Middle East in the light of the developments in Egypt. Again, on Iran, both Lavrov and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov drew a "red line" at Munich that Russia would oppose any US moves on further sanctions against Iran.
Conceivably, Russia made a point that might have got drowned in all the confusion as Mubarak faces a departure from the presidential palace - that the road to Cairo or Tehran passes through Brussels.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.