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Getting to “Yes” on Missile Defense

WASHINGTON, DC – The recent visit by Dmitry Rogozin, Special Envoy of the Russian President for Missile-Defense Cooperation with NATO, to the US State Department highlights one of the many obstacles to Russian-US cooperation on ballistic missile defense (BMD). Russia’s foreign and defense ministries have both asserted primacy in the BMD dialogue with the US, but with competing perspectives and priorities. Russia’s diplomats have generally, but not always, adopted a harder line, while Rogozin has been pushing his own BMD agenda.

Another complexity is uncertainty over who will rule Russia. Given the differing views of President Dmitri Medvedev and former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – the main candidates in next year’s presidential election – many Russian bureaucrats prefer to avoid offering bold initiatives regarding BMD or other strategic arms-control issues until they know who the next president will be. Medvedev seems less fearful of NATO than his semi-paranoid predecessor, but Putin has in the past shown surprising flexibility on some strategic issues.

The joint missile-threat assessments that the Russian government recently concluded with NATO and the US revealed much overlap among the participating technical experts, but some fundamental differences between the policy strategists. For example, while Western representatives generally view Iran as an emerging threat, many Russians still insist that the Iranian regime remains a proliferation challenge that can be managed through non-BMD means such as diplomacy and limited international sanctions.

More generally, for reasons of pride and history, many Russians refuse to believe that US policymakers have become more concerned about Iran’s minimal strategic potential than they are about Russia’s robust nuclear forces. They therefore presume that, despite American professions to the contrary, the US seeks BMD capabilities that can negate Russia’s strategic deterrent under the guise of protecting America and its allies from Iran.