European missile defence: a Russian self-fulfilling prophecy
13 Apr 2022|

Amid a heightened fear in Europe of the Russian missile threat, Germany has expressed an interest in buying the Arrow 3 missile-defence system, a joint Israeli–US system designed to confront long-range Iranian missiles. At the end of March, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz didn’t conceal the fact that he was seeking to defend his country from a Russian missile threat: ‘[A missile shield] is certainly among the things we are discussing, for good reason … We must all prepare ourselves for the fact that we have a neighbour presently ready to use force to assert its interests.’

This is an intriguing development for a number of reasons. Unlike Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania that have enthusiastically supported US missile-defence deployments in Europe, Western European countries have traditionally been sceptical of and even hostile towards the idea of fielding missile defences. That’s largely because it entails a military commitment from Washington.

Back in the early 1980s, Britain and West Germany expressed acute concern over US President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, arguing that it posed great risks of destabilising the superpower strategic relationship. Many European countries were unenthusiastic about President George W. Bush’s missile-defence plans, fearing the impact on arms control and relations with Russia and China.

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union invested considerable efforts in developing missile-defence technologies to escape the vulnerability of their home territories to massive nuclear destruction. Each side recognised that missile defence could damage strategic stability and lead it into a new form of dangerous competition at great expense. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty emerged from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) after the Soviet leadership demonstrated its readiness to accept restrictions on offensive and defensive weapons.

Yet Bush announced his intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in December 2001. A few years later, his administration unveiled controversial plans to deploy missile-defence interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic. At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that the ABM withdrawal would be a ‘mistake’ but that Russia would find ways to overcome the problem. Former US ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter has argued that ’the ABM Treaty had been one of the few indicators that Russia, as the principal legatee of the Soviet Union, was recognised by the United States as still being in the big leagues’. This step undermined strategic stability and was arguably a humiliation for Russia.

Putin’s fierce opposition to missile-defence deployments in Europe has been on display almost as long as he has been Russia’s president. He has exaggerated the threat posed by these systems, but previous Russian leaders have expressed similar concerns, including Mikhail Gorbachev in the wake of Reagan’s announcement of SDI. However, Russia has also been active in carrying out extensive upgrades to its own missile-defence systems. Indeed, this Russian activity was a major factor in Britain’s decision in March 2021 to increase its nuclear stockpile, fearing that improved Russian defences would neutralise the UK nuclear deterrent.

Although Barack Obama’s administration abandoned Bush’s controversial missile-defence plans, in 2009 it unveiled a new anti-​missile system, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach. The US has made it clear on numerous occasions that such systems are too limited to threaten Russia’s strategic forces. Nevertheless, Moscow has consistently rejected US and NATO claims that missile defences are intended to deal with the dual threat of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction emanating from the Middle East, and maintains that it is actually directed at its own strategic nuclear forces. A NATO anti-​missile facility has been deployed in Romania, and another deployment has taken place in Poland.

Russia has cited the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty as the reason behind its investment in dangerous new technologies such as hypersonic missiles. For Russia, the missile-defence deployments in Romania and Poland are symbols of NATO enlargement eastwards, which it objects to.

Early in 2018 Putin said:

After the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty we’ve been working hard to develop new promising weaponry systems and this enabled us to make a big step forward creating new strategic arms … US global missile systems are mainly against ballistic missiles and these are the core of our nuclear deterrent. This is why Russia has been developing extremely effective systems to defeat missile defence and all our ICBMs are equipped with such systems now.

In March, Russia reportedly fired a Kinzhal hypersonic missile at an underground arms depot in Western Ukraine. The Kinzhal can carry a nuclear warhead as well as a conventional one. Uzi Rubin, a leading Israeli missile expert and the former director of the Arrow missile-defence program pointed out in a recent conversation with me that it is difficult to calculate the trajectory of a high-velocity and manoeuvrable hypersonic missile because of its unpredictability. The Russians claim that the Kinzhal can hit a target up to 2,000 kilometres away and can fly faster than 6,000 kilometres an hour. However, this doesn’t mean that it can’t be shot down. Rubin maintains that the Arrow 3, ‘a very manoeuvrable missile, might be adaptable for engaging the Kinzhal’.

Germany would need both Israel and the US to agree to the sale of the Arrow 3 since it’s jointly produced by them. Germany’s announcement of its interest in purchasing the system may further heighten Russian paranoia on this issue. There is an irony at work here: Putin’s Russia has long claimed that US and NATO missile-defence deployments in Europe are a Western plot aimed at weakening Russia. Moscow’s actions in Ukraine may yet ensure that this will now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.