The Reconfiguration of European Missile Defense, Russia’s Response and the Likely Implications

The Reconfiguration of European Missile Defense, Russia’s Response and the Likely Implications

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Thomas Young

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


President Obama's decision to reconfigure United States missile defense policy, which was announced on 17 September, was based on U.S. intelligence that emphasizes the developing threat posed by Iran's short and medium range ballistic missile capabilities. At the same time, it also suggests that Tehran's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program is advancing more slowly than was previously thought. [1] As a result of this re-assessment, the Bush administration's plan for stationing X-band radar in the Czech Republic and deploying 10 ballistic missile interceptors in Poland have now been shelved. [2]. The alternative consists of a phased approach that will begin in 2011 with the deployment of land- and sea-based interceptors, as well as the stationing of a range of sensors in specified locations across Europe. Subsequent phases will involve the introduction of an upgraded Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor and more advanced sensors, which will provide greater coverage as the technology continues to develop. [1,3,4] This decision has been widely welcomed as one that makes sound strategic, technical and financial sense.

As it constitutes a significant shift in U.S. foreign and defense policy the re-assessment was inevitably greeted with mixed reactions in the United States, Europe and Russia. It brought consternation from conservative elements within the U.S. Congress and induced some feelings of betrayal from those politicians in Poland and the Czech Republic that had expended political capital in agreeing to the installations. But the differences of opinion within Russia, and the public comments that have been made by Kremlin officials, are perhaps more subtle and more difficult to interpret. This issue brief will examine the Russian response to the missile defense announcement and the likely implications this will have on Moscow's policy towards Iran and arms control negotiations with the United States.

Reasons for the Reconfiguration

Although the decision is being viewed by some on Capitol Hill as a concession to Russian diplomatic pressure, the Obama administration stressed that it was a pragmatic one that was taken after receiving the recommendations of both the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Robert Gates, in particular, has been very active in articulating the rationale that lay behind the reconfiguration. [5] Explanations for the support of the military focus on two key arguments: that the new plan provides better and more immediate protection for U.S. troops stationed in Europe and the Middle East; and that it lowers extortionate expenditure in protection against a threat that is not considered immediate. This claim, that long-range missile defense was viewed by certain members of the armed forces as a competitor for limited budget money, was supported by Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, when he remarked that the military was only "willing to support it as long as the budget was increasing." [6]

Criticism, as expected, has come from those that supported the previous plan. Many of these critics have suggested that the change in policy was designed to placate Russia and is a reward for Moscow's belligerence. House Minority Leader John Boehner claimed that "scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran." [7] Although such comments may be politically driven, it is likely that the potential for an improvement in relations with Russia was seen as a useful side benefit of the decision. This was acknowledged by President Obama himself in his comment that "if the by-product of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid then that's a bonus." [8] However, given the convincing strategic, financial and technical arguments that have been made in favor of the reconfigured system, it appears unlikely that the opportunity for improved relations with Russia was of primary concern in the Obama Administration's decision making process.

The Russian Response

Russia's response to the announcement can be best described as one of cautious optimism. This is particularly true where President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin are concerned. Both indicated that the decision did not come as a surprise and that there is now a window of opportunity for increased bilateral cooperation.

Although several officials and commentators also expressed optimism, these comments were accompanied by skeptical statements from within the Russian armed forces. [9] There is a concern among more conservative elements of the military that nothing, in reality, has changed and that the reconfigured plan continues to represent a strategic threat both in terms of the possible location of the SM-3 interceptors and their continued technological development. Nikolay Makarov, Russia's Chief of the General Staff, stated in an interview with journalists on 21 September 2009 that "to everything that is related to missile defence our attitude is negative." [10] Although similar fear regarding the continued threat of U.S. missile defense plans appeared elsewhere in the military, these were refuted by some former members of the Russian armed forces. One such figure, Colonel General Viktor Yesin, a former Chief of Staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, stated that "only its strategic element concerned us — the third missile defense staging area, which it has now been decided to abandon." [11] The military's more cynical view is a reflection of the fact that the previous plan has only been shelved, coupled with its inherently more suspicious mindset when it comes to the interpretation of U.S. defense policy. It should also be remembered that it still has concerns regarding the absence of an ABM Treaty that can legally constrain future deployments of U.S. missile defense systems.

The impact of Makarov's comments was, however, limited by the fact that both President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin expressed satisfaction with the decision. President Medvedev suggested that "favorable enough conditions" were now in place for the United States and Russia to "assess the risks" of the proliferation of missile technology. He also stated that Russia was ready for "further dialogue." [12] The emphasis that it should be the first of a number of steps was articulated by Vladimir Putin who indicated that he hopes "this correct and brave decision will be followed by others." [13] By "others" he may be referring to NATO expansion, again re-emphasizing that missile defense was not the only issue that was souring bilateral relations. Nevertheless, the words of both Putin and Medvedev do provide a strong indication that a climate of cooperation does currently exist and that this moment should be seized.

Will It Be Seen by Russia as a Reward for Its Strong Opposition?

There was a concern within NATO member states, and the United States in particular, that Russia may view this decision as a diplomatic victory for its strong opposition to the Polish and Czech deployments. In some instances this does appear to have been the case. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, claimed that the US decision was largely based on "Russia's uncompromising position on the issue of missile defense." [14] However, this does not appear to have been the general conclusion in Russia and it certainly was not the one that was indicated in public statements. An element of caution and the realization that triumphalism could be counterproductive appears to have brought restraint.

Prospects for Increased Cooperation

While the move appears to have been largely welcomed by the Russian government, it should be remembered that missile defense was not its only concern; questions also remain over NATO's continued eastward expansion and this will be a key impediment to any marked increase in long-term cooperation. Nonetheless, there is certainly a possibility for greater Russian cooperation in the short-term. Two key areas in which Moscow may now prove more amenable to U.S. interests include its policy towards Iran and ongoing nuclear arms control talks.

I. Dealing with Iran

Initial signs regarding Moscow's possible re-assessment of its policy have been encouraging. A recent change has been detected in the tone of the Russian media when it comes to Iran and speeches from the UN General Assembly were broadcasted in a manner that reflected negatively on President Ahmadinejad. One notable example came from Pervy Kanal's news bulletin on 24 September which showed Ahmadinejad's speech to the UN General Assembly immediately following a clip of President Medvedev condemning those who deny the Holocaust. The report then proceeded to note that Ahmadinejad had "cast doubt" on the existence of the Holocaust on multiple occasions. [15] When such coverage is juxtaposed with President Medvedev's statement that "sanctions are seldom productive but are sometimes inevitable," it is certainly possible to believe that the Kremlin is at least re-considering the merits of its current policy towards Iran. [16] While this may give the United States some cause for optimism, there remain at least three factors that could prevent Russia from agreeing to a substantial strengthening of the sanctions regime.

Firstly, it could be considered that Iran poses a greater strategic threat to Russia than it does to the United States. This is due primarily to the explosive effect that any Iranian meddling could have on the largely Islamic North Caucasus. Although the conflict in Chechnya has largely subsided, its neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia continue to smolder. Russia accused Iran of training and supplying Islamist militants during the first war in Chechnya (1994-96) but an improvement in relations meant that similar accusations were not directed at Iran during the 1999 war in Chechnya. [17] Moscow will, as a result, be aware of the dangers of Iranian influence in the region and the potential consequences of adopting a more confrontational posture towards Tehran.

Secondly, Russia has a number of trade links with Iran in what the Kremlin considers to be the strategic sectors of armaments, nuclear energy and oil. An area of particular concern has been the sale of surface-to-air missiles such as the delivery of 29 Tor-M1 systems in 2005 and the proposed sale to Iran of the S-300. [18] Moscow claims that these weapons are defensive in character and therefore do not present a threat. If Iran does acquire the S-300, however, then it will severely complicate any potential Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.[19] The supply of these weapons systems makes Russia a vital ally in the implementation of an effective sanctions regime should that regime include weapons sales.

A final factor that has contributed to Russia's ongoing opposition to further sanctions against Iran is that both Moscow and Beijing are weary of backing Tehran into a corner. It is believed that excessive coercion may have the opposite effect to that desired by the United States and may inadvertently lead to Iran seeking a nuclear weapon for defensive purposes. [20]

Events, however, may well make it increasingly difficult for Russia to resist the passage of a new UN Security Council Resolution on Iran. Revelations that Tehran has been developing a second uranium enrichment facility close to the city of Qom heighten this pressure, particularly as it is being presented as further evidence that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon. Robert Gates indicated that the United States has known about the facility for some time but did not disclose the information earlier as it wanted "to ensure" that its "conclusions regarding its purpose were correct." [21] When asked about Russia's reaction to this development, President Medvedev stated that he was "seriously concerned." [22] Russia has repeatedly called for concrete evidence from the IAEA that Iran is attempting to produce a nuclear weapon and while many will claim that the latest revelations are not conclusive, it will certainly make it increasingly difficult for Russia to protect Tehran. Leaked excerpts from an unofficial IAEA report on Iran's potential weaponization activities may also add to this pressure. [23]

II. Nuclear Arms Control Talks

Although the early indications are that Russia may decide to support stronger sanctions, numerous Russian analysts have highlighted arms reduction talks as a more likely area of engagement with the United States. [24] With the START I Treaty due to expire in December 2009, the latest round of negotiations between the United States and Russia began on 21 September in Geneva and the re-assessment of missile defense policy, Washington hopes, will smooth the path towards finding an agreement. Offering concessions in the START follow-on negotiations is something that Russia can agree to without relinquishing what could be the key diplomatic card that it holds in preventing Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO. It is with this key strategic concern in mind that the Kremlin may choose to avoid cooperating fully with the United States against Iran until a later date.

An issue that is likely to be of concern to the White House, however, is the degree to which the decision to reconfigure missile defense will complicate the ratification of a START follow-on treaty in the U.S. Congress. Both Russia and the United States have expressed their desire for a finalized agreement to be in place before December but the subsequent ratification process, particularly in the United States, is likely to be both protracted and problematic. The missile defense decision will certainly not make this process any easier.

Missile Defense Cooperation

In the immediate wake of President Obama's September 17th announcement, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivered a speech, coordinated with the White House, in which he called for "a genuine new beginning of our relationship with Russia." Rasmussen also suggested that "we should explore the potential of linking the United States, NATO and Russian missile defense systems at an appropriate time." [25] There have been some indications that Russia may prove receptive to this suggestion in the long-term. A report in RIA Novosti quoted Viktor Yesin, the now retired former chief of staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, as stating that "Russia and the US could jointly turn to this topic again in the future if Iran gets such a weapon (long-range ballistic missile), but this won't happen until at least 2015." [26] In addition, Russia's Chief of the General Staff, Nikolay Makarov, indicated that co-operation on missile defense is something that they would be sympathetic to and that there would "certainly" be opportunities for. [27]

Although there remains little in the way of technical details about how missile defense cooperation would take place in practice, there does appear to be renewed political will and this may help to drive the research and development process. This sentiment was reflected by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's Ambassador to NATO, who suggested that "given political will, technical matters can be successfully resolved."[28]

Missile defense cooperation is likely to be more widely discussed as a result of the United States' reconfiguration of its existing plans. Shifting the discussion and debate over missile defense away from an area that created suspicion to one that highlights an opportunity for substantive technical cooperation could be a significant breakthrough. Not only would it inject energy into the bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia but it could also give real purpose to the NATO-Russia Council. Cooperation on this scale would bring strategic benefits for both nations and if it is coupled with continued disarmament on the part of the nuclear powers then missile defense cooperation could play a key role in dissuading any potential future proliferators from developing nuclear weapons. Perhaps the most immediate benefit, however, would be the possibilities for increased trust and understanding that would result from joint research and development efforts into missile defense. It should be acknowledged, however, that the sharing of sensitive technology remains an obstacle to effective cooperation in this area.

Potential Losers from the Decision

Although the decision has short-term implications for both Poland and the Czech Republic, resulting in some feelings of betrayal within their respective governments, it is Ukraine and Georgia that are likely to be most affected in the long-run. The decision appears to be leading, at least for the time being, to a markedly improved climate of relations between the United States and Russia. Cooperation on issues of high strategic significance may result in the indefinite postponement, or even complete abandonment, of plans to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the North Atlantic Alliance. Only time will tell whether or not the relationship with Russia continues to develop and the extent to which it becomes invaluable to the achievement of NATO's strategic goals. Should it do so, however, then continuing with its open door policy may prove to be a liability.


A careful eye will be trained upon Russia during the coming months as the United States and Europe await its next move towards consolidating the improved climate in bilateral relations. Whether or not this change will come in the form of a re-assessment of its policy towards Iran is uncertain. Perhaps a more likely alternative is that it will attempt – along with China – to dilute any new sanctions, or that it will prove more flexible in ongoing arms reduction negotiations in Geneva.

Moscow will undoubtedly feel that it needs to hold on to some key diplomatic cards in order to have leverage over other issues of concern. Arguably of most importance is its strong opposition to the continued expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union. The situation with Iran may, however, come to a head long before the question over Ukraine and Georgia's accession to NATO is resolved and the disclosure of the enrichment facility in Qom only reinforces this fact. As a result, Russia may see it as in its interests to offer increased cooperation before it would ideally have liked.

There is a possibility that Washington's re-assessment of its policy will help create the conditions for both bilateral and multilateral collaboration on missile defense. Should this be the case then it may help redefine the complex relationship that exists between Russia and the United States and lead to a more robust nonproliferation regime. Such an eventuality is, however, only a useful byproduct from a pragmatic decision that was, as Alexander Konovalov – the head of the Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow — states, a victory for "common sense." [29]


Official Statements and Speeches

  • Remarks by the President on Strengthening Missile Defense in Europe, White House, 17 September 2009,
  • Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy: A 'Phased, Adaptive Approach' for Missile Defense in Europe, White House, 17 September 2009,
  • "Nato and Russia: A New Beginning," Speech by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Brussels, 18 September 2009,
  • McKeon Opening Statement for Hearing on President Obama's New Plan for Missile Defense in Europe and the Implications for International Security, Committee on Armed Services, 1 October 2009,

Articles and Reports

  • Secretary Robert Gates, "A better Missile Defense for a Safer Europe," New York Times, 20 September 2009,
  • "Excerpts from Internal IAEA Document on Alleged Iranian Nuclear Weaponization," Institute for Science and International Security, 2 October 2009,
  • Robert Gard, John Isaacs, Kingston Reif and Travis Sharp, "President Obama's Revamped European Missile Defense Offers Better Security," The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 17 September 2009,
  • David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund "Technical flaws in the Obama missile defense plan," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 September 2009,

Fact Sheets

  • Fact Sheet on the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, Missile Defense Agency, 18 August 2009,


  • Council on Foreign Relations ABM/Missile Defense,
  • Missile Defense Agency,
  • Union of Concerned Scientists,


[1] "Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy A 'Phased, Adaptive Approach' for Missile Defense in Europe," The White House Briefing Room,, 17 September.
[2] Perry, Scowcroft, Ferguson et al, "US Nuclear Weapons Policy," Independent Task Force Report No. 62, Council on Foreign Relations, 2009, p.37.
[3] Michael Elleman, "Missile shift 'defends Iran's neighbours," BBC,, 18 September 2009.
[4] David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund, "Technical flaws in the Obama missile defense plan," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,, 23 September 2009.
[5] Secretary Robert Gates, "A better Missile Defense for a Safer Europe," New York Times,, 20 September 2009.
[6] "Military Pushed for New Missile Defense Plan," Global Security Newswire, 21 September 2009.
[7] "Obama scraps Bush-era Europe missile shield," MSNBC,, 17 September 2009.
[8] "Obama rejects Russia missile link," BBC,, 20 September 2009.
[9] In addition to the Kremlin, expressions of optimism have also come from the Russian Duma. Konstantin Kosachev, a member of the State Duma, suggested that "The Obama Administration is beginning to understand us." In "Russia welcomes US abandoning missile defense shield," The Daily Telegraph,, 18 September 2009.
[10] "Russia is opposed to US plans for new missile defence in Caucasus," Interfax, 21 September 2009; Open Source Center document CEP20090921950059.
[11] "Russian military pundits interviewed on NMD changes," Moskovskiy Komsomolets Online, 21 September 2009; Open Source Center document CEP20090925048001.
[12] "Medvedev 'Notices' US Plans to 'Readjust' ABM," ITAR-TASS,, 18 September 2009; Open Source Center document CEP20090917950368.
[13] Clifford J. Levy and Peter Baker, "Putin Applauds 'Brave' U.S. Decision on Missile Defense," New York Times,, 19 September 2009.
[14] Marc Champion and Gregory L. White, "Moscow welcomes news on missile shield, sees no concessions in return," Wall Street Journal,, 18 September 2009.
[15] "Russian TV gives mixed messages on Iran after Obama-Medvedev talks," BBC Monitoring, 24 September 2009; Open Source Center Document CEP20090924950223.
[16] Julian Borger, "Medvedev: sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme may be inevitable," The Guardian,, 24 September 2009.
[17] Jeffrey Mankoff, "The Road to Tehran Does Not Run Through Moscow," op-ed in Huffington Post, 12 September 2009.
[18] "Iran says S-300 missile deal with Russia on track," RIA Novosti,, 15 April 2009.
[19] "Russia Will Not Stop Supplying Defensive Systems to Iran," Interfax,, 25 September 2009; Open Source Center Document CEP20090925964012.
[20] Alexei Arbatov, "Russia and the Iranian Nuclear Crisis," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,, 23 May 2006.
[21] Gerry J. Gilmore, "No doubt new Iranian nuke facility is illicit, Gates concludes," US Department of Defense Press Release,, 27 September 2009
[22] "Iran defiant amid new nuclear row," BBC News,, 25 September 2009.
[23] "Excerpts from Internal IAEA Document on Alleged Iranian Nuclear Weaponization," Institute for Science and International Security,, 2 October 2009.
[24] Fyodor Lukyanov in Fred Weir "Russia's response to US missile defense shield shift,",, 18 September 2009.
[25] NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a speech delivered to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Brussels, 18 September 2009,
[26] "Russia, U.S. could develop joint missile defense against Iran," RIA Novosti,, 21 September 2009.
[27] "Russia is opposed to US plans for new missile defence in Caucasus," Interfax,, 21 September 2009; Open Source Center document CEP20090921950059.
[28] "Moscow praises NATO's proposal to link missile defense systems," RIA Novosti,, 18 September 2009.
[29] Steven Eke, "A Victory for Russian Diplomacy?" BBC,, 17 September 2009.

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