The United States and Soviet Union long ago effectively banned missile defenses (or Anti-Ballistic Missiles) in the ABM Treaty of 1972. Defense analysts widely interpreted that agreement as a ratification of MAD (mutually assured destruction). Neither the US nor the Soviet Union could strike the other because of certain catastrophic retaliation.
However, a missile defense would undermine the effectiveness and thus the certainty of retaliation. Even Ronald Reagan acknowledged that defenses can be viewed as threatening in his famous 1983 "Star Wars" address:
I clearly recognize that defensive systems have limitations and raise certain problems and ambiguities. If paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that.Nonetheless, George W. Bush unilaterally ended the ABM Treaty in 2001.
For some months now, Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have been making noises about a new cold war. Russia has been especially angry about America's announced plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe. Putin views the system as a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent, assuring it only a "ragged" retaliatory capability.
Could MAD be threatened by the missile shield?
Given recent changes in the arsenals of the two former superpowers, the US will, in the words of Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, "probably soon" have the ability "to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike."
A missile defense looks kind of like a scary fail-safe mechanism in that context, eh?
In a roundtable event earlier today, in Germany, President Bush made a series of arguments that reveal a decent understanding of deterrence. However, I doubt they will dispel Russian fears.
Indeed, key clauses seem to be aimed more at reassuring his European hosts -- a journalist had just asked the about the importance of Russia again targeting Europe with its nuclear missiles -- rather than the Russian listeners:
Russia is not a threat. Nor is the missile defense we're proposing a threat to Russia...Russia is not going to attack Europe. The missile defense system is not aimed at Russia...Hmmm. Maybe the President intends to have American "military people" and scientists assure Putin that the US defenses won't work?
By the way, a missile defense system that is deployed in Europe can handle one or two rocket launchers. It can't handle a multiple launch regime. Russia has got an inventory that could overpower any missile defense system. The practicality is, is that this aimed at a country like Iran [sic], if they ended up with a nuclear weapon, so that they couldn't blackmail the free world.
I will continue to work with President Putin, Vladimir Putin, to explain to him that this is not aimed at him. And there's all kinds of ways you can do that. One is total transparency between our militaries and scientists -- military people and scientists, which I'm more than happy to do.
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