Missile Defense and Rising Global Tensions: The Web of Relations between Iran, Russia, and the United States

By Rooney, John Jack | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Missile Defense and Rising Global Tensions: The Web of Relations between Iran, Russia, and the United States


Rooney, John Jack, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


When Barack Obama was sworn in with the solemn oath of the US presidency, he was given a rude awakening to the gravity of his new job courtesy of Russian President Dimitri Medvedev's address to the Russian Parliament. The first day after Obama's historic inauguration, Russia declared it was positioning Iskander missiles in the western enclave of Kaliningrad in response to planned missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, marking the first time since the Cold War that Russia had threatened the West with aggressive military action.

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Not an entirely isolated incident, a resurgent Russia fueled by booming oil revenues has led to a more assertive foreign policy from the Kremlin, epitomized by last August's military incursion into Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. With US-Russian relations deteriorating significantly during the tenure of the Bush administration, it should have come as no surprise to the new US president that Moscow would test him early on. Such aggressive measures, nonetheless, were alarming. When President Obama took office, US relations with Russia were at their lowest point since the collapse of arms control negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. At the center of these hostilities lies the X-Band radar and the silo-based interceptor missiles, with the implications of its construction reaching well beyond Central Europe to a new global power struggle.

Undoubtedly, tensions between the two nations have built up over time, however, the missile defense installations scheduled for construction in Poland and the Czech Republic seem to present a threat that Russia can not leave unanswered. Despite assurances from the US that the European missile systems are strictly defensive in nature and designed to protect from an Iranian ballistic missile, Russia has nonetheless regarded such deployments as urgent threats that demand aggressive actions. Certainly Moscow was uncomfortable with NATO expansion steadily moving to its front door, but the Kremlin's heated rhetoric seems to suggest that there is more than meets the eye with these missile defense systems, and that the US is not telling the whole truth of the matter.

According to the United States Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the goal of the system is "to defend US allies and deployed forces in Europe from limited Iranian long-range threats" with the breadth of the shield covering all of Europe except for portions of Southeast Europe like Turkey, Romania, and Greece. Currently, however, the most advanced Iranian ballistic missile capabilities only reach a distance of about 2000 kilometers. Thus, the only countries in range of an Iranian missile are the exact same countries which are not protected by the missile defense shield. This begs the question, what exactly is the missile shield designed to do, especially given the unlikeliness of an Iranian missile attack of Europe anyways.

In a quite revealing interview with independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer conducted by Bernard Gwertzman for the US Council on Foreign Relations, speculation surrounds whether missile defense is actually directed towards Russia rather than Iran. When asked about Moscow's concerns over the installations planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, Felgenhauer responded that "the Russian military says that these missiles will be nuclear-armed [and that] the American notion of non-nuclear warheads, 'bullets hitting bullets,' is a smokescreen." As he explains further, nuclear warheads can be used to destroy an incoming missile due to the breadth of their blast; pinpoint accuracy is no longer a necessity.

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As Felgenhauer goes on to say, the implications of such forward-based nuclear missiles are exactly what has provoked such extreme measures and heated rhetoric from Moscow. Painting the missile shield as more of a deterrent than a defense, Felgenhauer goes on to say that the Russian military believes "that nuclear missiles will be deployed in Poland near Russia and these nuclear missiles will have also a first-strike capability and could hit Moscow before [Russia's response] could get airborne, [thus seeming] not so much as missile defense as a deployment of first-strike capability. …

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