Missile Defense A Divisive Topic At NATO Summit

Russia and the U.S. are trying hard to bridge their differences over the U.S. plan to build a missile defense system in Europe. Russia holds deep suspicions that the system is actually a plan to counter Russian nuclear missiles, not to protect Europe and the Middle East from Iranian missiles. The issue is an urgent one as NATO gets ready to hold a summit in Chicago and formalize its commitment to missile defense in Europe.

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Among the top agenda items at this weekend's NATO Summit is the ever thorny problem of missile defense. NATO, led by the U.S., wants to deploy a missile system in Europe to defend against Iran. But Russia wants guarantees that the system won't be used to attack its offensive nuclear missiles. Over and over again, Washington has tried to persuade Moscow that missile defense is not a threat. As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the Russians are not convinced.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: The motivating factor behind the U.S. push to deploy missile interceptors in Europe is Iran. Iran might deploy missiles that can reach not only Israel but eventually all of Europe. That's the worst-case scenario for the U.S. Thus, the motivation for a system that could intercept Iranian missiles and neutralize Iran is a threat. Sergey Rogov, a longtime security analyst at the USA and Canada Institute in Moscow says Russia has its own worst-case scenario.

SERGEY ROGOV: Well, Russians are concerned about American technologies which may develop in the worst-case scenario several years from now. Thus, Russian-American discussions on this issue look very much like the dialogue of the deaf.

SHUSTER: The Russians acknowledge that the initial phases of the European missile defense system do not threaten the strategic balance between the U.S. and Russia. But Rogov fears that sometime in the future the U.S. could improve its missile defense capabilities and deploy enough interceptors that they might threaten Russian missiles. Further, Russian leaders are skeptical of the U.S. arguments about Iran or North Korea, for that matter, says Rogov.

ROGOV: Since very few, if any, experts believe that there is a clear and present danger of Iranian and North Korean threat, it's inevitable that what the United States has been doing is perceived as something which is aimed against the intercontinental ballistic missiles which Russia possesses.

SHUSTER: The tension over this issue is so serious that at a recent conference in Moscow, one Russian general said Russia might have to attack NATO's missile defense installations which are planned for Poland, Romania and Turkey later in this decade. So how to overcome this hurdle? Russia has decided to expand its own missile defense system. The commander of Russia's general staff, General Nikolai Makarov, said there could be cooperation between the two systems.

GENERAL NIKOLAI MAKAROV: (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: Our initiative is an invitation to work together, Makarov says. But we do not intend to impose our concept on NATO's plans. U.S. officials are making similar arguments. Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary of NATO, said this recently during an appearance on the Russian radio station Moscow Echo.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: If Russia and NATO are inside the same structures working together every day, Russia will see from the inside that there's no threat. And in the process, Russia could improve the protection of its own territory and its people by linking its systems to NATO's.

SHUSTER: Still, the Russians want to see the U.S. commit to limits on the system. They fear the U.S. might eventually deploy anti-missile systems in space or arm U.S. interceptor missiles with nuclear warheads. And, the Russians argue, what if it turns out that Iranian missiles are not the threat that they seem to be at the moment? After all, North Korea just suffered a very public humiliation in its failure to launch a three-stage rocket. What if the threat assessment changes, Rogov asks.

ROGOV: The United States never made it clear to us that they will stop if the threat disappears.

SHUSTER: Alexander Vershbow addressed this question in his recent radio interview.

VERSHBOW: If the threat appears more slowly, the program may be reduced in scale.

SHUSTER: There are some dissenting voices on the Russian side. Alexander Konovalov, a lifelong analyst of Russian security affairs, says he has come to believe that the Russian arguments against U.S. missile defense are meant to mask a more serious problem inside Russia itself.

ALEXANDER KONOVALOV: I'm deeply convinced that problem of anti-ballistic missile defense is an artificial one and practically nonexistent. It's not a technical and it's not a military issue. It's pure political.

SHUSTER: Russia's leaders have more urgent economic problems to solve, Konovalov says, so anti-Americanism and talk of the missile defense threat helps distract the public most concerned about Russia's economic future. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Moscow.

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