NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen has appealed for a joint missile defense shield with Russia to cover Europe and offer protection from a possible terror attack. But analysts are still cautious about its prospects.
At a press conference on Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen spoke about what he believed was the most serious security threat faced by Europe. "There is a growing missile threat, including from Iran," he said. "And the politicians have a responsibility to protect the population." Europe must "take its share in the joint protection from missile attacks."
As far as NATO is concerned, any hope of creating a missile defense system for Europe rests on the cooperation of Russia. Moscow has persistently voiced its opposition to missile installations in eastern Europe that it believes could be used as offensive weapons.
To this end, Rasmussen has been working to bring NATO and Russia together to discuss the possibility.
Speaking during a recent visit to London, NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters, "Russia should be included in a missile defense system which covers Europe." He said plans for a "new security architecture" should be "one roof which includes the Russians as part of the same security family."
The attempted cooperation has apparently met with some success. At least one newspaper, the British Independent, reported that secret talks had already begun between Washington and Moscow on the subject, though no further details were reported.
The end of the George W. Bush presidency certainly opened the door to a rapprochement between Russia and the West, a process that has culminated in the recent signing of the nuclear disarmament Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) treaty in Prague.
Many analysts were impressed at the speed with which President Barack Obama managed to instil enough trust in opposite number Dmitry Medvedev to bring him to a disarmament agreement.
Just a START
But many experts are still concerned whether Obama's so-called 'reset' policy will be enough to allay Russian concerns about a European missile shield. Margarete Klein, Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), believes the former superpower enemies are still locked in a Catch-22 stand-off.
"The crux of the problem is that such a defense shield would create a lot of trust between Russia and NATO, but would require a lot of trust in the first place," she told Deutsche Welle.
But Klein emphasized that there was a real willingness in Russia to negotiate with the US, albeit with certain caveats. "I think Russia is open to cooperation with NATO on a defence shield, on condition that the US postpones the deployment of parts of its global missile defense shield in Eastern Europe," she said.
This rapprochement is partly motivated by a common threat - Iran. As Francis Tusa, veteran British defense analyst and writer military affairs, told Deutsche Welle, "If you look around at the world's borders, you'll see that Russia is in a more risky position."
Klein believes that Russia's signing of the START treaty was also motivated by necessity. "Russia saw that its strategic nuclear weapons arsenal will downsize anyway due to the age of the missiles," she says.
"Therefore, reducing its arsenal together with the USA offers the opportunity to remain on par with Washington and reduce the financial burdens of its strategic nuclear arsenal."
For its part, the US has been desperate to prevent Russia selling arms to Iran, and making a major agreement on a missile shield could be seen as an effective way to control the trade. "The US has been very active in trying to persuade Russia not to sell weapons to Iran," says Tusa. "But we know that Russia has made deals with the Iran in the past."
Several ways to skin a cat
But the devil in any international agreement is in the proverbial details. In this case, the detail is the actual military hardware up for discussion. "There is some confusion about what kind of missile defense shields are being talked about," says Klein.
"There are Theater Missile Defense (TMD) systems, designed to defend troops against shorter-range missiles, and the National Missile Defense (NMD) systems, designed to protect a whole nation or group of nations."
Though the more mobile TMDs are typically used in actual war scenarios like Afghanistan, they can be deployed as domestic defense systems instead of the larger NMDs.
"There are several ways of skinning the cat," says Tusa. "You could have linked batteries of TMD systems, which would be a lot cheaper."
The variety of options and weapons technology is likely to dominate any negotiations, and could easily scupper the project. Both sides are likely to be wary of revealing too much of their own technology.
"I think the US state department's concern at the moment is probably whether the Russians are just there to have a look-see," said Tusa. "They may say they're interested in creating a joint defense shield just to see what the US has to offer, and then back out if it's not enough."
Experience suggests that armies are extremely cagey about sharing technology, even with their partners. "America's main NATO allies in Europe - the UK and Germany - basically never get to see any US military technology. Do we really believe that the State Department is suddenly going to let Russia see everything?" asked Tusa.
But this does not exhaust all the complications that any large-scale collaboration would involve. The European NATO states where missile defense systems would be installed are unlikely to allow the negotiations to take place without their opinions being heard. And these opinions are wide-ranging.
"Europe encompasses several different views - eastern European countries obviously have a very different attitude to Russia than western ones," said Tusa. "The countries to the south-east will be more concerned about the threat from missiles, while countries in north-western Europe less so."
As so often, the importance of Poland's strategic position in Europe could prove vital, and the country's recently improved relations with Russia may open to the door to a global project.
Klein is optimistic: "Poland is a very important member state in NATO, and Poland's relations with Russia will play an important part in the development of the missile defense shield. For that reason the recent rapprochement between the two countries, which began well before the recent tragedy in Smolensk, is a good sign."