During his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Russia’s parliament, President Vladimir Putin threatened Washington with retaliation should it deploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe: “Russia will be forced to create and deploy types of weapons that can be used not only for those territories from which there will be a corresponding direct threat to us, but also for those territories where there are decision-making centers on the use of missile systems that threaten us,” the Russian president vowed.
Putin warned American policy-makers to take into account “the range and speed of Russia’s future arms systems” before making decisions that will prompt Russia to respond. However, these future arms systems will come with a hefty price tag that could kill the new social assistance programs central to Putin’s annual address.
The Russian president said the United States’ “unilateral withdrawal” from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is the most urgent issue in Russian-American relations. Blaming Washington for suspending its obligations under the INF Treaty, he reiterated Moscow’s official claim that the U.S., not Russia, was in breach of the treaty as it was “using medium-range target missiles and deploying launchers in Romania and Poland that are fit for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.”
The alleged U.S. violations of the INF Treaty apparently involve Washington’s deployment of elements of its missile defense shield in Poland and Romania. The U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system in these two countries is operated by NATO and comprises the Alliance’s defense shield in Europe. Other elements include a command-and-control center at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a radar installation in Kürecik, Turkey, and four multi-mission BMD-capable Aegis ships based in Rota, Spain.
On February 7, the Russian defense ministry summoned the U.S. embassy’s military attaché to demand that the United States destroy its MK-41 missile defense launch systems deployed in Romania as well as its strike drones.
Defense Shields vs. Assault Missiles
U.S. and NATO officials and independent military experts say that the missile defense installations in Europe are defensive, not offensive systems. They use long-range interceptor missiles, such as SM-3, designed to counter and destroy incoming missiles in case of an attack. According to the U.S.
Department of State, the SM-3 interceptor missile has been developed and tested solely to intercept and counter objects not located on the surface of the Earth. The Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system lacks the necessary software, fire control hardware, support equipment and other infrastructure needed to launch offensive ballistic or cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk. Importantly, the U.S. basing agreements with Poland and Romania specifically state the defensive nature of Aegis Ashore.
“Missile defense is for defense,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the launch of the Romanian installation in 2016.
But the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, Darryl Kimball, says Russia has “legitimate concerns” that these launchers could be used for offensive purposes, even if this possibility is only theoretical. His organization has been promoting a compromise between the two sides: the U.S. agreeing that it would not use the land-based MK-41 vertical launching system associated with Aegis Ashore and won’t launch missiles into Russian territory in exchange for Russia modifying or destroying its new intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
NATO’s defense shield in Europe can hardly be equated with the nuclear-capable intermediate-range missiles Russia has developed in violation of the INF Treaty. Kimball himself has told Polygraph.info that they “are not equivalent problems,” although he believed that they allowed some trading space between Moscow and Washington.
Lieutenant General (Retired) Frederick Benjamin “Ben” Hodges, former Commander, United States Army Europe, sharply disagreed with endorsing moral equivalency between U.S. defense systems in Europe and Moscow’s production and deployment of prohibited nuclear-capable missiles.
“No European country has said that Russia has a legitimate claim regarding NATO’s missile defense systems,” he told Polygraph.info. “On the contrary, all of our allies have stated that Russia has been undeniably in violation of the INF Treaty for years.”
Russia has its own missile defense systems based on its European territory, including S-400 air defense systems in the Kaliningrad enclave, between Lithuania and Poland, and four S-400 systems in occupied Crimea. If Moscow objects to the NATO missile defense shield protecting its European members, the right comparison would be with Russia’s own defense systems that are spread along the country’s borders, including in occupied territories like Crimea.