When it comes to believing in mutual assured destruction, or MAD, as the basis for Russian security, Russia never left the Cold War.  Today’s leaders are as determined as their predecessors from the Soviet era to base Russian security on holding the US and Europe at risk with nuclear missiles.  They regard anything the US does with missile defense as a threat to that strategy.

Putin, Medvedev, and their diplomats couch their objections as follows:  American missile defense plans “threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent.”  And the proper response – the honest, consistent response – is:  “Of course.  That’s what they’re supposed to do.”  In Reagan’s original vision, effective missile defenses would make it meaningless for anyone – Russia, the US, China, India, Pakistan – to have an arsenal of strategic nuclear missiles.  When George W. Bush withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2001, he explicitly delinked US security policy from the symmetrical, “nuke-versus-nuke” deterrence concept of the Cold War era.  The whole point of layered missile defense is to void that concept.

That doesn’t mean Russia must be fated to be insecure.  It means the US does not agree to be held hostage as the guarantee of Russia’s security.  Nor do we agree to consign our allies to that fate.  The Russians are doing everything in their power to induce us to revert to the old “balance of terror,” however, and in 2011, the Reagan vision for escaping it hangs by a thread.

Obama’s 2009 decision to cancel the ground-based interceptor (GBI) deployment in Poland was not enough to reassure Russia about American missile defense plans (some of us predicted that at the time).  Obama’s concept for deploying tactical assets instead is meeting with the same resistance from Moscow.  The original GBI plan, besides defending Europe, would have given the US a defense against ICBMs launched across Europe from Asia.  The new plan, involving only tactical interceptors, provides no defense for North America; it can only intercept medium-range theater missiles targeted at Europe.  But even that is more than Russia will accept.

The Russians have been perfectly explicit as to their concern.  Even supposing that the purpose of the missile defense plan is to defend Europe against missiles from Iran, Russia is unwilling to have defenses deployed that might conceivably prevent Russia from launching nuclear missiles at Europe.  That’s why the Russians proposed last month that they have a “red button” veto over the use of a joint NATO-Russian missile defense system.  It’s why they are threatening to withdraw from the New START agreement that took effect in February.  It’s why they are threatening a new “MAD arms race.” And it’s why they have conducted two launches of their new-generation Sineva ballistic missile (modified SS-N-23 SKIFF) from the Barents Sea in the last month.

There’s a tendency to dismiss the Russian military as hollow today, and that tendency is dangerous.  The Russian military is hollow – but nations with hollow militaries rely more, not less, on strategic nuclear arms for their concepts of national security.  It doesn’t matter to the performance of a nuclear warhead whether the army that fields it is feeding its soldiers dog food or not.  The force build-up Russia has undertaken since 2007 has been weighted toward the “strategic nuclear triad” of the Cold War, and principally toward two legs of it:  land-launched ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).  (The third leg is strategic bombers.)  While the US has allowed our strategic nuclear forces to stagnate, Russia has been updating hers.

Going back down the path of MAD because Russia wants it and Americans don’t bother to understand that it’s happening is a terrible idea.  Russia isn’t the only nuclear-armed non-ally out there.  China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are all nuclear armed; Iran is moving heaven and earth to become so; and unstable nations like Burma and Venezuela are hanging out with just the rogue elements that can put them on the list as well.  In 2011, we should be putting everything we can behind establishing missile defense, rather than MAD, as the global basis for security.

This doesn’t mean missile defense is perfectly seamless, of course.  One day it may be so, but it isn’t now.  What it can do, right now – today – is ensure that no first strike can possibly cripple the US and our allies so that we can’t mount a debilitating second strike.  That reality is as much a deterrent to the first use of nuclear weapons as the threat of annihilation under MAD.  And Russia could implement a missile defense for her own security – against China or Iran, as well as against NATO – quite as well as we could.  We have repeatedly offered our technology for that project, but the Russians also have missile defense programs of their own.

If we don’t think missile defenses will deter Iran, in particular, then clearly the threat of a massive counterstrike won’t deter Iran either; the two go together.  The argument that a missile defense won’t deter Iran is not an argument for MAD; it’s an argument that Iran is undeterrable under her current leadership.  Regime change is the remedy for that condition – ideally, the regime change the Iranians themselves are more than willing to undertake.  MAD is the last thing we should rely on.

Russia is trying to get the US (and by extension, Canada and NATO Europe) to accept reverting to MAD, largely because it’s more convenient for Russia to remain a great power and retain outsize leverage that way.  We cannot let that consideration drive our national security decisions.  It’s better for America – and ultimately better for Russia – to press forward with the concept of missile defense as the basis for security.  Unlike a proliferation of layered, interlocking, or chaotic MAD regimes across the globe, missile defense offers the possibility of defanging nuclear arsenals altogether.  Giving in to Russia on her missile defense demands would send us back in the other direction – this time with multiple nuclear-armed wolf packs snarling and snapping at our heels.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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