After a series of questions from its European allies, a number of strongly worded statements from Russian politicians, and a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, the United States finally admitted it blundered by going ahead with plans to deploy elements of its missile defense system in Europe without asking anyone. Now, the United States is launching a coordinated effort to explain the deployment's rationale and even suggesting that Russia and the United States share missile defense technology and coordinate ballistic missile threat assessments.
Of course, none of this makes missile defense a good idea. But these steps could help tone down Russian rhetoric. While both the United States and Russia seem serious about not starting a new Cold War, the frequency with which they're issuing denials of hostile intentions is growing alarming. If everything was okay, nobody would need all the extra reassurances.
Nor will a U.S.-Russian dialogue about missile defense end the controversy. The United States insists it won't allow Russia to veto the deployment, and Russian leadership is openly skeptical about the justification for U.S. interceptors and radars in Europe. Still, a conversation is better than back-and-forth promises of missile deployments or Russia's threat to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The biggest problem with the current predicament is that it gives Russia yet another reason to believe that unless it makes credible threats, preferably ones that involve nuclear weapons and missiles, no one--not the United States or (old or new) Europe--will listen. This is regrettable since the security discussion in Russia is already heavily dominated by the Cold War concepts of "strategic balance" and a bean-counting mentality that places an emphasis on the number of weapons in Russia's arsenal. The outcome of the missile defense flap only reinforces these beliefs, doing all parties involved a disservice--most notably Russia.
Moreover, none of this needed to happen. Russia has tried to insert itself in the discussion about U.S. missile defense installations in Europe for the better part of a decade. Moscow even suggested engaging in a similar cooperative agreement to the one that's on the table today--consultations about ballistic missile threats and collaborations on technology development. Nothing materialized because the U.S. missile defense bureaucracy understandably perceived these proposals as a threat to its programs.
For all of the Bush administration's faults, it at least got one thing right: The Cold War is over; therefore, its concepts and strategies are outdated. But it erred in thinking that this means that all of the problems that Washington and Moscow inherited from the Cold War would simply disappear. This proved to be wrong--changing the Cold War mentality requires a dedicated effort on both sides. Instead, the United States and Russia rolled back most of the cooperative programs that existed in the 1990s. Bringing them back now would be a very difficult task.
So even though missile defense is hardly a worthy area for cooperation, we should welcome this development if it means Moscow and Washington start talking again.