Jane VaynmanFrom Putin, An Offer You Can't Refuse

As we all know, Russia and the U.S. have been in a tiff over the U.S. proposal to put missile defense installations in Europe (Ten interceptors in Poland and an x-band radar in the Czech Republic.)

Ok, more than a tiff. Putin said Russia can’t accept such things so close to its borders. Bush said it’s not about you; it’s about the evil states. Putin threatened to point missiles at Europe. The whole thing looked to be going rapidly downhill right in the middle of the G8 Summit.

Then Putin proposed the U.S. and Russia cooperate on missile defense by using an existing early warning radar in Azerbaijan. Seems like everyone – U.S. government, American and U.S. experts, press – was taken by surprise.

It is a very clever proposal. The terms are far from clear, but its political implications are currently more significant than the technical ones. Russia gets to step away gracefully, avoiding getting stuck in a corner; the U.S. was not conceeding to Russia’s very public kicking and screaming, while Russia’s own position had started to appear impractically rigid. Now, Russia looks good, creative, cooperative. And it’s the U.S. which will look lousy if they just reject the proposal. Don’t you want to talk?!

Oh and what if the proposal is crappy to begin with? Well, it will take a little while to figure that out. In the mean time, let’s all just calm down, have a cup of tea, and spend a long long time negotiating. You have to hand it to Putin; very impressive stalling tactic.

Speaking at a hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this week, CDI’s Victoria Samson took the analysis on missile defense cooperation in an interesting direction, noting that while cooperation on such systems sounds like a good idea, so far the U.S. has not been very good at it:

At any rate, the United States has had great difficulty in peer-to-peer cooperation on missile defense before. Right now, it is working on the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) with Germany and Italy. Perhaps “working” is too strong a word for the progress of this program, which wobbles along as the country partners bicker about funding. In fact, originally there was to be a new interceptor developed for this program. But a few years ago, the United States rather peremptorily decided that instead they would be using the PAC-3 interceptor and told its two other partners as such – not an encouraging signal for how well the United States can give and take.

In fact, the United States and Russia have tried in the past to cooperate on missile defense. The Russian American Observation Satellite or RAMOS program illustrates how much distrust remains between the two countries when it comes to defense issues. RAMOS began in 1997 with the goal of having each country create an earth-observing satellite that could detect and track missiles. Within one year, the United States military began to try to unilaterally change the program so that it would be more of an “operational benefit” to U.S. satellites, as opposed to a cooperative effort with Russia that could be a confidence building measure. Arguments ensued over funding and the direction of the program, causing suspicion and eroding support on both sides. Finally, the situation devolved so that funding for RAMOS disappeared in the 2005 budget request released in February 2004, an omission that effectively killed the program.

In addition, Victoria points out that cooperation on missile defense may have complicated implications on states’ involvement in the weaponization of space:

But this discussion does ignore one very crucial consequence of collaborating on the U.S. missile defense system: that this will eventually lead to collaborating on the weaponization of space. The United States intends to create a space-based layer of missile defense that would have interceptors on orbit with the goal of using them to shoot down enemy missiles during their boost or initial phase of flight.


The United States of course wouldn’t expect another country to collaborate on building or launching space-based interceptors. However, the early warning data that it would collect for its overall missile defense networks – i.e., the radars that already exist in Fylingdales and Thule or the new one proposed for Eastern Europe – would very likely be used by the United States for aiming space-based weapons, seeing as it wouldn’t make sense for the United States to build an entirely new network specifically for its space weapons. This would in effect make those countries who agree to work with the United States on missile defense in general collaborationists on the weaponization of space. This line of reasoning has already been demonstrated. In February 2005, Canada preemptively told the United States that it did not want to cooperate on its missile defense system because the Canadian population considered it a first step to the weaponization of space.

It is also interesting to look at the Azerbaijan proposal in light of Russia-Iran relations. Putin’s proposal is yet another indicator of increasing distance between the two countries. Azerbaijan and Iran are next door after all, and Putin has also mentioned the possibility of interceptor cites in Turkey and Iraq. In commenting on the proposal last week, one Russian defense expert (who makes the Godfather quote reference in his article) noted how quickly Putin seemed to sell out Ahmadinejad.

See more on Putin’s Azerbaijan proposal at Danger Room and RussianForces.org.


  1. Andy (History)

    The US seemed to do pretty well in the cooperation department with Israel’s Arrow system.

  2. FSB

    It will not work against the countermeasures Iran can easily use—even if they were silly enough to launch a attack via missile and not sneak one in on a boat.

    The Aizerbijan site would be excellent for boost-phase defense: a type of missile defense that can actually work!

    So Putin tells Bush a way to make a viable MD against Iran and Bush backs out. Nice.

    Is it stupid times 2 or stupid**2?

  3. Geoff Forden (History)

    No one in the West, including Armscontrolwonk I’m afraid to say, has ever considered what legitimate concerns Russia might have about a radar in the Czech Republic. Let me spell it out:

    First, Russia must consider how such a radar could be used in future conflicts; after the US has had a chance to deploy large numbers of relatively cheap THAAD batteries. After the US abrogated the ABM treaty, the US admitted that THAAD had substantial potential against ICBMs—something analysts such as Ted Postol and George Lewis had been saying for quite a while before that. What limits THAAD’s capabilities is their radar which isn’t powerful enough to search for distant targets but is powerful enough to track them once cued where to look. (Searching takes more power since it has to cover more area.)

    An X-band radar in the Czech Republic could observe the maneuvers of the post-boost bus of all of Russia’s Topol-M missiles and predict the trajectories of all of the released warheads. (The warheads themselves have radar cross sections too small to be detected and tracked by GBR-P in large numbers while the bus would have an enormous cross section.) These predictions could then be sent to the THAAD radars so that they could limit their “search” to just tracking.

    Of course there are several problems with this. THAAD—since it engages the incoming warhead above the atmosphere—would still be defeated by countermeasures such as balloons etc. But Russia would be justified in not relying exclusively on balloons and would undoubtedly feel pressure to increase the number of warheads aimed at the US (and hence would be less likely to agree to future cuts in strategic forces). And it would also target the radar in the Czech republic.

    Placing the GBR-P in Azerbaijan means, however, that can not track the Russian missiles because there is a mountain in the way! (Check it on Google Earth! The radar’s site is at 40.868161°N 47.796223°E) This was a real counterproposal and you and everybody else would do a real service to preventing another arms race if you would take both Russia’s concerns seriously and their proposal seriously.