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An impossible dream?

Long gone are the days of heightened tension between NATO and Russia that followed the 2008 war in Georgia. The two former rivals have managed to put their differences aside and are now in intense discussions to explore new possibilities for cooperation. Nothing, perhaps, better illustrates the ongoing rapprochement than the announcement at the NATO Summit in Lisbon that Brussels and Moscow to join forces in developing a joint missile defence shield to protect Europe.

Or at least so it seems. For, hopes pinned at NATO and Russia turning a joint missile defence project into a vehicle to advance a lasting partnership are not warranted.

The joint missile defence project seems quite feasible, at least on paper. Both sides can boast of the technological wherewithal to defend Europe against a limited missile attack. But this is a decision not for technical experts but rather for politicians; and that is the problem.

Despite proclamations to the contrary, Russia and NATO are at loggerheads over the form and extent of their missile defence cooperation. Therefore, one should be under no illusion that this is a done deal just because NATO and Russia officials have given it their blessing. Russian diplomats continue to voice their concerns while they go to great lengths to emphasise that unless made part of it, Russia will mount fierce opposition to any missile defence system.

At the moment, there are two competing visions that seem hard to reconcile. NATO proposes to build its missile defense completely independent of the Russia system, thereby confining NATO-Russia cooperation only to sharing intelligence data and conducting joint military exercises. NATO countries hope that by offering Russia limited participation in missile defence it might drop its overall opposition to the project.

As for Russia, it insists on integrating the two systems as much as possible. Moscow has therefore suggested to the Alliance that they should each be responsible for providing missile defence protection for their own sector in Europe.

In this regard, Moscow is pursuing two strategic objectives. First, it wants to make sure that any missile defence system cannot be used against Russia, which is why it seeks to exert as a tight control over it as possible. Second, its participation in NATO’s missile defence presents Russia with a possibility of increasing its say in NATO decision making through the backdoor. The bottom line is that Moscow demands nothing short of a veto over the use of the European missile defence system.

Uncertainty about the proposed European defence missile shield might scuttle any hopes for NATO and Russia to forge a more durable partnership. Granted that both now agree in principle that they would like to team up to counter the threat of ballistic missiles, but a host of unresolved practical and more importantly political issues need to be resolved first.

Given their profound differences Moscow and Brussels are probably heading for disappointment on this issue. Hence, they might be better advised to focus on more fruitful and pressing areas of potential cooperation, such as supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan through Russian territory.

Jakub Kulhanek is a post-graduate student in the School of Politics and International Relations researching Russia’s relationship with NATO. This is a revised version of an article published on the Atlantic Council website.

Published inEuropean PoliticsEuropean securityRussia

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