Provoking Russia Over Nothing?

In the aftermath of the U.S. completing its missile defense system agreement with Poland, Russia has already begun to intimate that Poland is risking attack as a consequence. Which begs the question: is there even a missile defense system to build? A former weapons tester for the Defense Department says no:

The U.S. is expanding its controversial, and mostly untested, Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system into Poland and Czech Republic, provoking Russia into making thinly veiled threats. In the wake of the South Ossetia war, these threats have assumed a much more sinister edge than before.

Phil Coyle, the Pentagon’s former top weapons tester (pdf!), says it’s all for nothing. “The system proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic doesn’t exist, has never been tested, and has no demonstrated effectiveness to defend Europe or the U.S. under realistic operational conditions,” Coyle contends in an exclusive conversation with DANGER ROOM.

He says that even our existing missile defenses, installed in Alaska, couldn’t stop more than one or two rudimentary missiles from, say, Iran. “For these reasons the U.S. BMD system proposed for Europe is causing strife with Russia for nothing.”

Read the whole thing. I honestly don’t know enough about the missile defense system to comment, but it seems to me that if the thing doesn’t work very well, it’s presence serves more as a provocation to Russia than anything else, doesn’t it? If Russia doesn’t want it, and it doesn’t serve a legitimate defense function, then to keep going down this path seems like a bad idea.

FILED UNDER: Europe, National Security, , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    If it doesn’t do anything useful, then why is Russia so upset about it?

    I think you too readily discount its effectiveness, Alex.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Boyd,

    Russia is upset because a missile defense system is composed of missiles, and they’re not too keen on the former Eastern bloc being host to American missiles–it undermines their influence in the region.

  3. Cernig says:

    I think the Russians are most upset about the way the folks at e.g. the Heritage Foundation have been saying for ages that the current plans must only be the first step – and that the next is to resurrect the Brilliant Pebbles space-based project.

    Regards, C

  4. Cernig says:

    Alex, you might be interested in a bunch of links I collected to Russian media reports on the subject back in June 2007. The Russians are also upset that they suggested an international joint operation for mutal ABM defense, a kind of “missile defense NATO” – but the US turned them down cold.

    Regards, C

  5. capital L says:

    I’m not sure who seems to be more invigorated by this this return to decades past: those who are inherently wary of Russia or those who reflexively bend over backwards to carry water for Russia. Pretty much every awful thing the left supposes the US is doing, Russia actually and enthusiastically carries out– but then it’s apparently OK, because the West forced their hand and besides think of how Russia must feel.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    He says that even our existing missile defenses, installed in Alaska, couldn’t stop more than one or two rudimentary missiles from, say, Iran.

    That’s what the U. S. has been saying all along—that the system to be installed in Poland isn’t intended to deter Russia but to defend against a smallscale attack from, say, Iran. It’s not new news.

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    …the system to be installed in Poland isn’t intended to deter Russia but to defend against a smallscale attack from, say, Iran.

    A missile defense system in Poland is going to defend the US from an attack by Iran? Or is Iran supposed to attack Poland?

    I haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning, but this doesn’t seem to make much sense.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    It is intended to protect Europe from an attack by Iran.

  9. Rick Almeida says:

    It is intended to protect Europe from an attack by Iran.

    Thanks for the reply. Setting aside the question of why Iran would attack Europe, wouldn’t Israel be a much more logical place to build missile defenses against Iran?

  10. Michael says:

    If it doesn’t do anything useful, then why is Russia so upset about it?

    It doesn’t have to be effective to make Poland and the countries behind it take a more aggressive stance against Russia, they just have to think it’s effective.

    Russia isn’t worried that Poland will be able to defend itself, Russia is worried that Poland will think it can defend itself.

    After all, Georgia thought it could defend itself (or at least have outside help in doing so), and that tipped the risk/reward factor in favor of Georgian action against Ossetia.

  11. Michael says:

    Thanks for the reply. Setting aside the question of why Iran would attack Europe, wouldn’t Israel be a much more logical place to build missile defenses against Iran?

    Only if we wanted to protect north Africa.

  12. Rick Almeida says:

    Wouldn’t it be true that missile defense based in Israel would both protect Iran’s most likely target AND be able (theoretically) to intercept any missiles launched from Iran?

  13. Michael says:

    Wouldn’t it be true that missile defense based in Israel would both protect Iran’s most likely target AND be able (theoretically) to intercept any missiles launched from Iran?

    I don’t think the ABM system is as effective against missiles on the last leg of their trip, they wouldn’t have enough time to intercept, and they’d have to travel in the opposite direction of the enemy missile, instead of parallel to it, making it much harder to hit.

    Israel also wouldn’t offer much of a defense against Iranian missiles unless they were flying over Israel (or close to it) on their way to another target, which would only really include northern Africa.

  14. Rick Almeida says:

    Fair enough.

  15. Still taking Russia at their word Alex? Looking forward to their non-diplomatic response?

    Of course, you can find someone (even someone from the government!) to say absolutely anything. The appeal to Mr. Coyle’s authority is unimpressive. Once again, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

  16. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    Still taking Russia at their word Alex? Looking forward to their non-diplomatic response?

    Umm, if I were to take their word, then I would have to believe that they will attack Poland. That would be pretty un-diplomatic.

    Of course, you can find someone (even someone from the government!) to say absolutely anything. The appeal to Mr. Coyle’s authority is unimpressive.

    I don’t know if he’s right or not. I’m merely suggesting that he is right, it doesn’t make sense to provoke Russia over a system that doesn’t actually provide us with any significant level of security.

    That’s what the U. S. has been saying all along—that the system to be installed in Poland isn’t intended to deter Russia but to defend against a smallscale attack from, say, Iran. It’s not new news.

    I don’t think the Russians actually buy this. Heck, I’m not sure that *I* buy it.

  17. Wayne says:

    Don’t get fixated on Iran. The system is being design for any small scale attack. This includes someone getting their hand of one of Russians mobile missiles or a rouge commander deciding to launch a missile on his own accord.

    As for Poland, the first phase of the missile defense is setting up an integrated radar system for the missile interceptors. We are in process of building many of these radars installation right now.

    As for this Phil guy, take him with a bucket of salt. He is one of the Democrats hacks. He served in the Clinton administration and at the request of Pelosi. Both of which have a history of putting very partisans people on these so call non-partisan committees.

  18. RWB says:

    To understand Russia’s position we need to understand Russian History from the Russian perspective. Russia sees itself as the buffer that kept the Mongol invaders out of Europe. For much of Russian history, it repelled waves of invasion from the east, limiting the advance of the invaders to Russian soil. To thank Russia for this service, both Poland and Finland would invade from the west while Russia fought in the east. Ever wonder why Russia seemed so aggressive towards it’s sweet neighbor Finland? Because for much of the last 600 years Finland was the aggressor. Russia’s cold war attitude towards Poland makes sense when viewed through the historical perspective, as does it’s current reaction to the missile shield. Our reaction to missiles in Cuba was based on about a fifty year history. Russia’s reaction in Poland is based on many generations of history. This is the raw nerve our president is pulling on.

  19. Cernig says:

    Israel has its own missile defense program, and doesn’t want the US as a joint key-holder.

  20. Our Paul says:

    Give Dave Schuler:

    It is intended to protect Europe from an attack by Iran. (August 22, 2008 | 09:22 am)

    the Never Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth Award for the month of August.

    The European countries were opposed to the posting of “defensive missiles” in their countries, and the Polish government was reluctant until this present crisis. What the Europeans knew, our resident Russia Specialist, aka Condi Rice did not: It would destabilize the continent, and sooner or later cause Russia to react.

    By the way Mr. Schuler, do you think that the pact the now links the US to the defense of Poland rises to the level of a treaty, which would require Senate approval?

    In closing, let me nominate George Bush for the “Do not worry about my machine gun, it doesn’t work and is unloaded” Monthly Award.

  21. Houston says:

    To understand Russia’s position we need to understand Russian History from the Russian perspective.

    Oh please. That’s just a bogus excuse for their aggressive behavior.

    News flash – many nations of the world were mean to each other in the past. Big Deal. Why aren’t France and England at war today? Because they’re now responsible democratic republics (or facimilies thereof) and know that such behavior is uncivilized. Russia is not – they’re nothing more than a big, autocratic bully trying to get their way by threatening their neighbors. We must deal with them as such, or they will just get worse and worse.

  22. RWB says:

    It’s not an excuse, it’s an explaination. If you understand how your enemy thinks you have an advantage in defeating him. As a culture, we no longer seem to understand that. Bush has left us militarily weak; we can no longer put Russia in it’s place by force of arms. We have to start out thinking our adverseries or we will become like the drunk who thinks he is tuff, and gets beat up at the bar every night.

  23. Houston says:

    I think we understand very well how “the enemy” (in this case, Russia) thinks. Like I said, they’re nothing more than an old-school bully. The question is, how do we deal with them –accomodation or rebuttal?

    Bush has left us militarily weak; we can no longer put Russia in it’s place by force of arms.

    First off, we are nowhere close to being militarily weak – where do you get that from? If anything, we’re preoccupied with another mission right now. However, only a portion of our forces are so occupied, and only certain types of assets – there are plenty of other “military” things that we are more than capible of doing, right now, if we so desire.

    I’m not saying that “putting Russia in it’s place by force of arms” is necessarily what we want to do. But we certainly don’t want to excuse, appease and accomodate either.

  24. Michael says:

    I think we understand very well how “the enemy” (in this case, Russia) thinks. Like I said, they’re nothing more than an old-school bully.

    It’s funny how the second sentence completely contradicts the first.

  25. capital L says:

    I think we understand very well how “the enemy” (in this case, Russia) thinks. Like I said, they’re nothing more than an old-school bully.

    It’s funny how the second sentence completely contradicts the first.

    Well please enlighten us, oh sage one, on how you would characterize the Russian government’s (i.e. Putin and his fellow former KGB members) treatment of Georgia, Chechnya, private industry (e.g. Yukos), independent media, and dissonant rabblerousers (Kasparov), because to a lot of us it seems like grade A-1 certifiable bullying.

  26. Alex Knapp says:

    I think we understand very well how “the enemy” (in this case, Russia) thinks. Like I said, they’re nothing more than an old-school bully.

    Sun-Tzu would be proud.

  27. Michael says:

    Well please enlighten us, oh sage one, on how you would characterize the Russian government’s (i.e. Putin and his fellow former KGB members) treatment of Georgia, Chechnya, private industry (e.g. Yukos), independent media, and dissonant rabblerousers (Kasparov), because to a lot of us it seems like grade A-1 certifiable bullying.

    That’s how you think, and it’s good to know how you think.

    But RWB said you need to understand how they think, and I guarantee you that they don’t think of it as bullying. They see a justification and an objective in everyone of those actions, and if we don’t understand what those justifications and objectives are, then we can not beat them.

  28. Houston says:

    George F. Kennan – US ambassador to the USSR in the early 50’s: “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.”

    It was true then, and until they move away from the Putinistic approach, so it will remain.

  29. RWB says:

    “First off, we are nowhere close to being militarily weak – where do you get that from?”

    I got that from how much our military prowess now informs the actions of Russia, Iran, or even the Taliban.

    “we’re preoccupied with another mission right now.” No, we are not preoccupied , we are bogged down. Our mission was to contain Iraqi WMDs. There were no WMDs and we are still there with no exit strategy except that forced on us by the soverign Iraqi government. This is a major failure of the civilian leadership, not the military.

    Not being able to open a second front makes us look weak and vulnerable everywhere in the world, and if our enemies perceive us as weak we will be attacked. Russian did not think twice about rolling into Gerogia.

  30. RWB says:

    “It was true then, and until they move away from the Putinistic approach, so it will remain.”

    Houston –
    my point was that this is not a Putinistic approach, it is the result of 600 years of history. People do not get over that kind of thing easily, even in the face of logic. It becomes an automatic reation. If we understood how and why they think the way they do, we could contain them; instead we provoked them by touching a 600 year old raw nerve. Once they contain Georgia, they will be looking to pay us back by irritating one of our raw nerves, perhaps Iran.

  31. Michael says:

    Once they contain Georgia, they will be looking to pay us back by irritating one of our raw nerves, perhaps Iran.

    Or Cuba.

  32. anjin-san says:

    it is the result of 600 years of history.

    Now why worry about history when you can just beat your chest and make threats?

    Also worth noting that Russia and Poland have fought something like 16 wars in the last 1000 years.

  33. Houston says:

    My point was that this is not a Putinistic approach, it is the result of 600 years of history. People do not get over that kind of thing easily, even in the face of logic.

    My point is that England and France (and much of the rest of the world) have gotten over their antagonistic histories, so why can’t the Russians? The difference is, Western Europe is now democratic, while Russia is autocratic.

    It has been shown over and over again that modern democracies cannot deal with autocratic beligerents by appeasing and accomodating. And we cannot allow history to be used as an excuse for unacceptable behavior.

    And as far as our military, believe me, no one should perceive us as weak. Just think about the percentage of our USAF and USN assets that are tied up in Iran/Afghanistan. Hint: it’s very small. True, a land war is not an option at this time. But we are at most “preoccupied,” not in any way “bogged down.”

  34. RWB says:

    “It has been shown over and over again that modern democracies cannot deal with autocratic beligerents by appeasing and accomodating. ”

    That my friend is a statement based on your view of history …

    “And we cannot allow history to be used as an excuse for unacceptable behavior.”

    And you are using history as the excuse ( I really mean to use the word “reason”, but I will use instead the word you keep using, “excuse” ) for your position. Not easy to get over your view of history, is it?

    It is YOUR view of history, it is real to you, and I mostly agree with it; I am just pointing out that THEIR view of history is as real to them and we had damn well better know what that view is. The defeat of Communisim may have happened much sooner if we understoood that much of what we did not like about Russian Communisim was Russian in origin and not Communist. That nature has not changed with their transition to democracy.

  35. Houston says:

    Fair enough, I understand your point, although I don’t agree, particularly with your comment about the defeat of Communism.

    I don’t accept the “typical liberal position” (not meant as an insult) that if we only “understood” why they hated us, we could all get along. This is what I call “accomodation,” which to our opponents is viewed as a weakness to be taken advantage of.

  36. Michael says:

    My point is that England and France (and much of the rest of the world) have gotten over their antagonistic histories, so why can’t the Russians?

    Because Russia hasn’t had to cooperate with Georgia, the Ukraine or Poland for it’s survival, like Britain and France have had to do. Russia actually did get over some of it’s antagonistic histories during various parts of it’s history, at least in as much as western countries got over their antagonism of Russia.

    I don’t accept the “typical liberal position” (not meant as an insult) that if we only “understood” why they hated us, we could all get along.

    RWB never said understanding them would let us “get along”, he said it would let us defeat them.