NATO, Russia look headed for conflict

By Roman Goncharenko

When NATO holds its summit this May in Chicago, there will not be the customary additional summit with Russia. Differences over NATO's missile shield plans have put dialogue and cooperation temporarily on hold.

Leaders in Moscow and Brussels carefully chose their words this week to downplay what is a clear impasse.

"The dialogue continues, and no doors are being closed," outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told reporters on Friday, March 23. Medvedev was referring to the announcement the previous day by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the bloc would not be meeting with Russia when it convenes in Chicago in May.

The official reason given was difficulty in accommodating the schedule of future Russian President Vladimir Putin. But earlier Rasmussen had said a NATO-Russia summit would only take place if the two sides could reach agreement on NATO's planned missile defense system in Europe, which Moscow stiffly opposes.

Experts say the real reason NATO and Russia won't be talking has nothing to do with full calendars.

"It's no surprise since NATO and Russia couldn't come together on the missile shield issue," Alexander Rahr, the Russia expert at the German Society for Foreign Policy in Berlin, told DW. "Putin's only option would have been simply to nod in assent to the Western decision."

That would have been an unacceptable foreign policy humiliation for prestige-conscious Putin. The question is: Where do things go from here?
Waiting game?

Washingtonis determined to press forward with the missile shield program, which it sees as a vital element of its European defense strategy. The main problem is that Moscow is demanding legal guarantees that the system will not be used against Russia.

And that, says Steven Pifer, a defense expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington, creates a political dilemma for US President Barack Obama.

"Even if the Obama administration would like to do that, there is no chance that the American Senate would ratify that," Pifer told DW. "Unfortunately missile defense has become very, very political."

In view of this year's presidential election in the US, Obama is unlikely to risk creating unnecessary conflict and looking weak toward Russia.

Meanwhile, Putin may have decided to wait for the result of the US vote before negotiating any further.
Retaliatory deployment?

Washingtoninsists that the missile shield is intended to protect Europe from missiles fired by states like Iran or North Korea, but Russia is deeply unhappy at the thought of NATO radar stations and missile facilities dotting its Western border.

In Fall 2011, Medvedev threatened that if an agreement could not be reached, Russia might deploy short-range missiles in Kaliningrad near its border with the rest of Europe. At the time, Russian experts saw the NATO summit this May as a kind of deadline for a deal.

It is entirely possible that Putin will now proceed with a retaliatory deployment, and Russia media have reported that the Russia military has indeed been preparing for this eventuality.

"Not participating in the Chicago summit is a gesture of warning from Putin," expert Hans-Henning Schröder from the German Society for International and Security Policy in Berlin told DW.

The deployment of short-range missiles would further escalate the conflict over this issue, although Schröder added that he didn't think this was all that likely in the immediate future.
NATO members worried

Still, any signs of hostility from Moscow automatically create concern among NATO's Eastern European member states, and Pifer said the Baltic countries are particularly wary.

Rahr said it was conceivable that a miniature arms race could ensue, although that would not lead to a revival of the Cold War, in which neither NATO nor Russia has an interest.

"Any escalation would be pursued very carefully so that both sides could end it at the next level," Rahr explained.

"The frustrating thing is that once you get past the [shield] issue, there's a lot of convergence between Russia and America about what a joint missile defense could look like," Pifer said.

And there are other opportunities beyond the NATO summit for Washington and Moscow to talk. Obama and Putin are scheduled to meet at this year's G8 summit in Camp David, also in May.

Thus far, no calendar problems have emerged that would disrupt that meeting.