Can Russia and the U.S. Cooperate on Missile Defense?


In the State Department's daily press briefing on January 3, spokesperson Victoria Nuland briefly got on topic of missile defense, and the now well-aged debate about placing the missiles in Europe and Russia's opposition to it. Nuland reiterated familiar points about American willingness to work with Russia on the matter and the expectation for the same attitude from Moscow, but also expressed the readiness to do so bilaterally, as well as in the context of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). The reason we might see the first concrete steps in 2013 on the resolution of the impasse between Washington and Moscow is not the often cited reason of Mideast-based missile threats: it is the potential of Chinese and Indian programs that will force an alignment between the foreign policies of the traditional superpowers on the issue.

Washington's Asia-Pacific shift in foreign policy means that China is now the primary geopolitical competitor to the United States. China's rapidly expanding economy also means that military investment is growing accordingly, most noticeably in aircraft carrier capacity and the creation of a submarine fleet that will carry nuclear missiles. In this respect, China would effectively employ the conceptual nuclear triad (land, sea, air), already in place in the United States, Russia, France and England. A near-continuous sea-based strategic deterrence capability will be followed by a globally deployable carrier strike group capability. Both options would give China the option of striking any point in the world at any time, and this is an unprecedented qualitative development for China's military.

In 2012, India tested a new generation of a long-range inter-continental ballistic missile, the Agni V, which has a potential operating diameter of 10,000 km and the ability to carry a nuclear warhead. Alongside a nuclear capability, India maintains a military that supplies from domestic industry, Europe, Israel, Russia and the United States, on a scale that makes it the only hybridized force of its kind in the world. India also boasts a program to develop aircraft carrier battle groups, which includes the purchase of another decommissioned Russian hull and the construction of two domestic carriers. Alongside, India is planning on expanding its nuclear submarine fleet, along with its ability to operate with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Traditional strategic cooperation with Russia would also provide the technological requirements for meeting these objectives. While the main reason for these investments is the ascendance of China in Asia, Pakistan's cooperation with Beijing is also a driving factor behind India's military modernization.

In sum, we have two rising powers that will achieve potentially unhindered global reach within a generation. In the playing field of a multipolar, co-dependent world, we won't likely see the ideological blocs that defined the Cold War, but rather, superpower dynamics where they will cooperate on certain matters and oppose on others. As China and India gradually climb the world's economic ladder, the West will still remain powerful, but not nearly to the same relative extent as before; in simpler terms, no country will be able to exert overwhelming control on any of the rest, as the U.S. and USSR were able to once upon a time. The Agni-5 is able to reach Europe, and further developments could see hypersonic or space-based versions of the missile (India is not a signatory to the Non-proliferation treaty). With this reality in mind, the United States and Russia could see themselves as allies against a potential threat, which affects both, and which will be equal or greater in capability within a generation.

In the immediate vicinity, America's Mideast interests were rattled by the Arab Spring, but could be diminished systemically if India and China adopt more active regional foreign policies in the near term, motivated by economic and security reasons (specifically curbing militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as potentially subversive movements in China's western frontiers). Further west, Eastern Europe would remain NATO's flank and first line of defense, but can also become strategically important for the defense of western Russia, where the majority of the country's infrastructure, people and economic potential is located.

This is not to suggest such cooperation will be achieved quickly, because foreign policy thinking in both capitals, and in NATO, continues to be dominated by the same people who ran the establishments through the Cold War as well. If the NRC is any indication, however, institutional cooperation is achievable and can be an effective tool towards defining the extent of the common interest in missile defense, as well as the best ways to achieve it. It is not even a stretch of the imagination to suggest that Iran can be co-opted as a regional partner via NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative, just like India and the United States managed to restart their nuclear relationship on a dime after nearly 30 years of impasse.

Ideology is no longer an overwhelming determining variable in a practically oriented multipolar world. As the West gradually cedes its power, and Russian strength is limited by a declining population, a costly and far-flung economic base in need of modernization and a socio-economic potential that will not be able to match that of China and India in scale during the 21st century, pragmatism would demand cooperation where possible. The United States, Russia, China and India enjoy generally civil relations between one another, but strategic developments demand a response, even when business is at the heart of them – now is the best time to start that conversation.