Russia is seeking to form an ad-hoc “coalition of the willing” to delegitimize U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans and paint the United States as a major threat to global stability. As part of this strategy, Moscow is preparing an all-out information campaign that it’s expected to unveil at a conference in Moscow on May 3 to 4 to highlight what it sees as the real reason for NATO and U.S. plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses to Europe and expand cooperation with countries like India and Japan, namely tipping the strategic balance in favor of Western Powers.
Russia is hoping to form a consolidated political group to stand with it in opposing U.S. and NATO BMD deployments, and any such coalition is likely to include China. But there are dangers to bringing Beijing on board that Moscow has either not accounted for, or is at least willing to accept.
As Manpreet Sethi suggested this week, BMD has long been an irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship. The issue was regulated until 2002 by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the treaty, the BMD question has been a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations. The United States sees a growing ballistic missile threat from the Middle East and North Korea, while Russia insists that BMD could jeopardize all or part of its strategic nuclear deterrent, leaving it vulnerable. Both sides have invested heavily in their respective positions, and apparently see genuine threats to acquiescing, which has led to the current impasse in negotiations.
Moscow has recognized that it doesn’t have sufficient weight to alter U.S. considerations or materially affect BMD deployment plans, nor can it offer any meaningful contribution to the plans that the United States will accept. Russia has therefore made the calculation that in order slow or stop the advancement of missile defense, it will need to bring China on board by making the case that BMD will disrupt the global strategic balance, while also rendering China more vulnerable to U.S. military interference.
By most credible accounts, China has for its part a stockpile of around 240 warheads, with only about 175 deployed and even fewer that can reach the United States. But, China’s current nuclear arsenal isn’t what makes it an attractive member of a Russian-led anti-BMD coalition; it’s China’s concerns about U.S. force projection in its neighborhood combined with its potential for a future nuclear buildup. According to Jeffrey Lewis of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, there’s “no theoretical limit” to the potential size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, which he says means “China could build a 20,000 warhead force if they wanted to, given enough time.” China’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle and quickly growing defense budget would allow it to build sufficient forces to maintain deterrence in the presence of a robust BMD deployment.
Beijing’s stated position that a global missile defense program will be detrimental to strategic stability puts it in line with Russia and may well make Beijing a willing and useful partner. While no one seriously expects a nuclear strike from Russia, Chinese plans are more opaque, inviting some colorful speculation. But this lack of transparency is what may make the United States cautious.
Russia, on the other hand, has fewer options and faces greater constraints, financially and politically. Following a rough election season, Vladimir Putin is continuing with his plan to invest 23 trillion roubles (about $760 billion) in military armaments despite criticism from domestic experts who see the need to emphasize growth in other sectors of the economy. They argue that plans should be slowed as the current threat environment doesn’t require the nearly 400 planned land and sea-based ICBMS, 8 SSBNs, or 100 satellites designated for military use. Many observers argue that the money being spent on strategic systems could be put to better use addressing more immediate and real threats that the Russian state faces, such as continued violence in the Northern Caucasus, instability in Central Asia, and the need to prepare for possible repercussions from the upcoming NATO drawdown from Afghanistan.
Top Russian officials, on the other hand, still see the need to maintain nuclear parity with the United States, perceiving threats to their territorial integrity and energy resources from states that could be tempted to solve one’s problems at another’s expense. And yet it’s hard not to believe that stoking Chinese fears about U.S. BMD is a mistake. If China decides to pursue a significant long-term nuclear buildup in response to BMD, Russia could eventually be faced with an adversary much more dangerous, closer and energy-hungry.
It’s clear that among Russian officials, strategic nuclear parity with the U.S. is seen as the last vestige of superpower status left over from the Cold War. But while Moscow is understandably loath to see this disappear, its defense planners would be well advised to exercise caution and keep the PR campaign to a minimum. Building a coalition of the willing in an attempt to scare the United States out of BMD deployments could end up doing more harm than good.
Andrew Riedy is an Alfa Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He specializes in Russian defense policy, strategic security, and nuclear proliferation.