Taking forward NATO-Russia Missile Defence Co-operation

Vice President Biden's visit to Moscow, during which the thorny issue of missile defence co-operation was extensively discussed, may herald a thawing in NATO-Russian rhetoric.

By Avnish Patel for RUSI.org

US Vice President Biden's two-day visit to Moscow on 9-11 March will have sought to reinvigorate efforts on NATO-Russia missile defence co-operation, especially in the lead-up to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meeting in June. The initial euphoria following the adoption of NATO's new Strategic Concept at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010 has been hampered by mixed signals and mutual mistrust. Agreement on co-operation will be a lengthy but worthwhile bureaucratic undertaking, considering Russian perceptions and US domestic forces driving the US EPAA and NATO's own internal momentum for a comprehensive missile defence architecture as outlined in the Strategic Concept.

NATO's Internal Momentum for Missile Defence Post-Lisbon

Biden's visit will have aimed to have a restorative effect and provide fresh impetus regarding NATO-Russia missile defence co-operation. The initial wave of optimism following the adoption of NATO's new Strategic Concept has been negated by divisive rhetoric bringing to the fore predictable tensions between both parties. 

The political consensus implied by the adoption of the NATO Strategic Concept has paved the way for territorial missile defence within the alliance as well as exploring opportunities for missile defence cooperation with Russia.[1] Tangible missile defence co-operation was considered a political must regarding the overall strategic relationship with Russia, to be conducted in the 'spirit of reciprocity, maximum transparency and mutual confidence'.[2]

The initial focus for NATO is to counter potential short- and medium-range missile threats from the Middle East, expanding to focus on intercontinental-range threats. Firstly, there would be the incremental development of a NATO-wide capability to protect European populations, territory and deployed forces against ballistic missile threats. Moving to territorial defence has necessitated the expansion of NATO's Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) capabilities, bolstering Command, Control and Communications structures.

The US European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) will be integrated into this NATO architecture, the key components being the placement of Aegis naval assets in the Mediterranean (as seen with the deployment of the USS Monterey on 7 March ), the installation of radar bases in Southern Europe and Romania and Poland hosting SM-3 land-based missiles in future phases by 2015 and 2018 respectively.[3] It is envisaged that this approach will bridge the gap between US and European capabilities and burden-sharing regarding NATO territorial defence.

NATO has been simultaneously attempting to assuage the Russian bear, previously irked by the Bush Administration's 'Third Site' plan, by encouraging missile defence co-operation and clearly building on the US 'resetting' of relations with Russia. NATO is attempting to reassure Russia that its missile defence architecture is designed to counter the threat of shorter-range and intermediate Iranian missiles. But the shadow of the Cold War still looms, with the Kremlin seeing the installation of missiles and the recent announcement of a new permanent US air detachment in Poland as politically driven. Russian manoeuvring seeks to ensure that this system cannot be used against it, alongside maintaining a strategic nuclear balance with the US. The ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in both the US Congress and Russian Duma was characterised by misunderstandings over missile defence, with a Russian inference that it could withdraw from the pact if the US EPAA developed into a security threat for Russia.

Meaningful Co-operation with Russia

It is paramount that the depth and level of co-operation be comprehensively clarified, with disparate political and technical views bridged and perceived fears dissipated. The NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, favours 'two independent but coordinated systems, working back to back'.[4] The primacy of autonomy reiterates the importance of NATO's Article V, which calls for collective defence between alliance members only.

The Kremlin has demanded equality in any joint system, fearing that NATO's plans for territorial missile defence take precedence within the Alliance and that cooperation via the NRC will be dictated to them following this. The Russians have pressed for a single 'sectoral' missile defence system divided into geographical areas of responsibility, encompassing a joint centre for monitoring missiles and command and control mechanisms. President Medvedev has been bullish on this, stating that within ten years 'either we reach an agreement on missile defence and create a full-fledged cooperation mechanism, or [if we can't come to a constructive agreement] we will see another escalation of the arms race. We will have to make a decision to deploy new attack forces. It is obvious that that would be a very unfavourable scenario."[5]

Russian concerns also offer the opportunity for strong-arm tactics on the international stage, and serving up an aggressive posture for domestic consumption. This merely gives credence to the argument that the Kremlin seeks to 'fashion the new European Missile Defence around a Russian veto, thereby giving it a degree of effective influence over NATO decision-making."[6]

Practicalities over Posturing

The current public discourse is blurring the agenda on practical co-operation, but it is worth noting that the bureaucratic process is turning the collaborative wheels. The Lisbon Summit heralded a framework issued by the NRC to take forward political dialogue and practical co-operation. The three pillars of the framework are: An agreement on a joint ballistic missile threat assessment; exploring theatre missile defence co-operation; the development of a comprehensive Joint Analysis of the Future Framework for Missile Defence Co-operation.[7]

The latter will act as a roadmap, leading to the June 2011 meeting of NRC Defence Ministers and then looking ahead to the decision-making input at the NATO Washington Summit in 2012. The joint analysis entails a consideration of respective Alliance and Russian capabilities, how a level of synchronicity could be achieved (bearing in mind command and control issues, data sharing and mutual protection), investment and burden-sharing.  With the recent spiky rhetoric, finding common ground looks elusive, but a number of earlier initiatives can provide a suitable foundation for collaboration. US-Russia contact on missile defence has recently been organised in a more structured and regular way, via the Joint Threat Assessment (JTA) and the Arms Control and International Security Working Group, both agreed at the July 2009 Moscow Summit.

The JTA has provided a forum for sharing respective threat perspectives, with the US hoping it aids Russian understanding of US threat perceptions and the justifications for deploying the EPAA. The NRC can build on these bilateral initiatives, especially when assessing mutual research and development, testing, modelling and simulation and exercises. The NRC can also take succour from the preparatory work undertaken by NATO and Russia on theatre missile defence co-operation, specifically the 2003 study on interoperability, command post exercises and computer simulations. The establishment of a Russian inter-agency working group on co-operation with NATO, headed by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's Ambassador to NATO and the President's Special Envoy on Missile Defence, will help to refine Russian responses and provide a sense of urgency.

Whilst high-level rhetoric tends to emphasize divergent takes on what a joint system would entail, a US-driven NATO can be seen to be moving towards a joint approach that takes advantage of Russian geography and radars. Dr Jim Miller, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, has stated that reciprocity of early warning sensor data would enhance a joint system and would therefore be a starting point for early NATO-Russia collaboration.[8] Speaking at the Eleventh RUSI Missile Defence Conference in May 2010, Frank Rose suggested that NATO can also look to build on previous Russian proposals made in 2007 and 2008 to share data from early warning radars at Qabala in Azerbaijan and Armavir in Southern Russia, to monitor Iranian flight tests.[9]

Despite the periodic and timely bouts of diplomatic bluster and veiled threats, the positive bureaucratic groundwork currently being laid will seek to set the conditions for mutual progress, ensuring that meaningful practical cooperation will be achieved in a timely manner.


[1] 'Active Engagement, Modern Defence. Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation', Adopted by the Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon, 19-20 November 2010, http://www.nato.int/lisbon2010/strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf

[2] Lisbon Summit Declaration, Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Lisbon, 20 November 2010, paragraph 38.

[3] 'Fact Sheet on US Missile Defense Policy - A "Phased, Adaptive Approach" for Missile Defense in Europe", Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, 17 September 2009,

[4] "Missile Defence: Two Independent Systems", NATO Secretary General's Video Blog, 19 January 2011,

[5] Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, 30 November 2010,

[6] Jakub Kulhanek, 'Russia's Uncertain Rapprochement with NATO', RUSI Journal (February/March 2011, Vol 156, No 1), p. 41.

[7] 'NATO-Russia Council Joint Statement', 20 November 2010,

[8] Statement of Dr James N. Miller (Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy), before the House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, 2 March 2011, pp. 12-13,

[9] Frank A. Rose, 'Prospects for US-Russia Missile Defense Cooperation', speech made by the Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation, US State Department at the 11th RUSI Missile Defence Conference, 27 May 2010,


Avnish Patel

Research Event Officer

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