On Ukraine, don’t make a bad situation worse

The United States needs to show Russia that further interference in Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe would be a serious mistake. But Congress should be careful not to make a bad situation worse.

Unfortunately, that is what is what two recent pieces of legislation could very well do.

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Both the “Russian Aggression Prevention Act,” introduced by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and other Republicans earlier this month, and the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed in committee last week, seek to accelerate the deployment of a missile defense system in Poland, and the Corker bill would halt further nuclear arms reductions under the 2010 New START treaty so long as Russia threatens Ukraine.

Both of these proposals may sound reasonable, but they are counterproductive and would undermine U.S. and NATO security.

European missile defense no threat to Russia

The two bills call on the Pentagon to accelerate deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Poland by 2016, two years earlier than scheduled. The current Pentagon plan is to field Aegis Ashore with 24 SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missiles in Poland by 2018.

This would be the third phase of the Obama administration’s European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). Phase One is already deployed with SM-3 IA missiles on Aegis ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Phase Two would field Aegis Ashore with the SM-3 IB missile in Romania by 2015.

There are two major reasons why spending hundreds of millions of dollars to accelerate the deployment of missile interceptors in Poland is the wrong response to Russia:

No military value against Russia: EPAA was never meant to counter Russian strategic (long-range) missiles. It is intended to intercept medium-range missiles from Iran. (Moreover, Russia does not have medium-range missiles.)

This should be a point of bipartisan agreement. Like the Obama administration, the George W. Bush administration also had its European missile defense plans focused on Iran, not Moscow.

Explaining why the Bush administration’s missile defense plan for Europe was not a threat to Russia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in 2008: “I frankly think that anybody who can do the math would know that 10 interceptors in Poland is not going to do anything to a Russian deterrent that has thousands of warheads.”

Increasing the number of planned interceptors would not increase its effectiveness against Russia. The interceptor for Poland, the SM-3 IIA, has a speed of about 4.5 km/sec, which is too slow to intercept Russian long-range missiles.

Even so, fielding the SM-3 IIA by 2018 is already an aggressive schedule, and moving it up to 2016 is likely to be impossible given the state of the technology. The missile is being co-developed by the United States and Japan, which makes schedule acceleration particularly complicated.

Thus, deploying Aegis Ashore in Poland by 2016 would likely mean using the slower SM-3 IB missile, at 3 km/sec. But this missile will already be in Romania by 2015. There is no added military benefit against Moscow to having it in Poland, too.

An Excuse for Russian Escalation: Both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to convince Russia that European missile defense is aimed at Iran and is not a threat to Moscow’s strategic missiles. But Russia is not convinced, and has resisted another round of bilateral nuclear arms reductions as a result.

By seeking to accelerate EPAA as a response to Russia, Congress is providing the “smoking gun” that Moscow has been looking for to show that EPAA really is a threat.

This will further reduce the chances that Washington will be able to achieve additional cuts in Russian strategic weapons, which would otherwise continue to pose a potential threat to the United States. It would also give Moscow an excuse to move Iskander short-range missiles closer to NATO, as it has threatened to do. None of this is helpful.

New START still serves U.S. interests

The Corker bill would also halt key reductions under the 2010 New START treaty so long as Russia poses a threat to Ukraine. This would be shooting ourselves in the foot.

A halt to further implementation of New START would invite Russia to do the same and possibly halt the verifiable reduction of Russian nuclear-armed missiles, and could lead to the suspension of on-site inspections and information exchanges that we gain through the New START treaty.

The on-the-ground inspections of Russian strategic forces under New START provide some of the best information available to the intelligence community on the status of Russia's nuclear forces and Moscow's compliance with the treaty. Why would we want to encourage non-compliance with any bilateral treaty with Russia and tempt disruption of this vital information flow?

It is in our national interests to ensure compliance with existing arms control treaties, including the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, and to seek further reductions in oversized Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals.

Accelerating missile defense in Poland and preventing New START reductions would be counterproductive. These proposals would do nothing to counter Russian strategic ballistic missiles or the threat of further Russian adventurism.

But they would hamper U.S. efforts to reduce Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and would also divert resources and attention away from more effective approaches.

Collina is research director of the non-partisan Arms Control Association in Washington DC.

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