On May 12, U.S. officials declared the U.S. SM-3 missile interceptor site at Deveselu, Romania operational. The next day, ground was broken at Redzikowo, Poland for a second SM-3 installation. Moscow immediately made clear its displeasure at these developments, repeating its past claims that U.S. missile defenses in Europe pose a threat to Russia. At the end of May, President Vladimir Putin warned that the SM-3 sites could subject Romania and Poland to being targeted by Russian weapons.

The Iran nuclear deal could open a possibility for reconsidering the SM-3 deployment plans. To get there, however, the Kremlin should offer something in the arms control field of interest to Washington and NATO.

Moscow’s concerns

The now operational Romania site houses twenty-four SM-3 missile interceptors capable of engaging intermediate-range ballistic missile warheads plus a SPY-1D radar. It is oriented toward possible threats from the Middle East, particularly from Iran. The same will be true with the Poland base, to be completed in 2018. It will also house twenty-four SM-3 missile interceptors, supplementing those in Romania, and its own radar. 

Iran thus far appears to be abiding by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding its nuclear weapons program. Following the JCPOA’s conclusion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the deal eliminated the requirement for U.S. missile defenses in Europe. When doing so, he misquoted a statement by President Barack Obama regarding the U.S. approach for defending NATO against ballistic missile attack.

Lavrov asserted—incorrectly—that Obama had said that a halt to Iran’s nuclear program would obviate the need for U.S. missile defenses in Europe. In fact, the president conditioned such a change on Iran ending its ballistic missile program as well as its nuclear program. The ballistic missile program continues.

An opportunity?

That said, an Iranian ballistic missile with a conventional warhead poses a far lesser threat than a missile with a nuclear warhead. The development of longer-range Iranian ballistic missiles, moreover, is advancing slower than anticipated. U.S. intelligence estimates for years suggested that by 2015 Iran could have an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States, more than 9,000 kilometers (5,500 miles) away. Today, Iranian ballistic missiles can reach targets in southeastern Europe 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) distant—no small achievement, but far short of intercontinental range.

The Russians have voiced particular concern about the U.S. missile defense site in Poland. Polish-based interceptors would add to the capability of the Romanian site to defend against Iranian missiles. But they could defend against little else now. Despite Moscow’s assertions, the SM-3 interceptors have no capability against Russia’s ICBM force, as they lack the velocity to engage ICBM warheads and would have to chase Russian ICBMs flying polar routes toward the United States. Russia is prohibited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty from having intermediate-range ballistic missiles (the U.S. government charges that Russia has violated the treaty, but that stems from testing an intermediate-range cruise missile). If Russia deploys short-range Iskandr ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, the SM-3s in Poland could offer some capability against them, but other systems might defend against that threat. 

The SM-3 installation in Poland thus might not have much of a mission, which raises the question of whether it will prove worth the expense. Building and equipping the site in Romania cost $800 million.

Deal or no deal? (Or more complaining?)

If Moscow truly worries about the Polish SM-3 site, it could prompt a reconsideration of that plan. The Russians could indicate that Moscow would be prepared to give on something of interest to NATO in return for the United States and NATO forgoing the SM-3 deployment in Poland. That “something” could be a dialogue on non-strategic nuclear weapons or some different proposal.

The Kremlin should not expect the administration on its own to offer to adjust the planned SM-3 deployment. Doing so would provoke an angry outcry from Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom regard support for missile defense as a near theological issue. Doing so could also raise unease in Central Europe absent a Russian quid.

The Kremlin should not expect the administration on its own to offer to adjust the planned SM-3 deployment. Doing so would provoke an angry outcry from Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom regard support for missile defense as a near theological issue.

A Russian offer, however, could give Washington and NATO a reason to reexamine the SM-3 plans. To pursue such an approach, it would have to be understood in advance that two conditions would apply:

  1. First, there could be no question of Iranian cheating on the JCPOA. Tehran would have to observe the agreement to the letter.
  2. Second, if it was decided not to deploy an SM-3 unit in Poland, the United States should deploy a military contingent of equal size in terms of number of personnel. Few Polish officials or military officers, if any, worry about an Iranian ballistic missile attack. What they want is American boots on the ground. Whether that unit operates the SM-3 interceptor or Patriot air defense system, or performs some other military mission, is a secondary consideration in Warsaw. U.S. officials would have to consult in advance with their Polish counterparts but would find them ready to listen.

Russia thus has a plausible way to prompt a NATO reexamination of the SM-3 plan. The longer Moscow holds off on pursuing it, however, the more work will be done at Redzikowo, and the more likely that the Polish site will go ahead to completion.

Will the Kremlin, which has expressed so much anxiety about missile defenses, attempt to deal? Or does it prefer to have something about which to complain and make threats?