When Presidents Obama and Medvedev hold their bilateral on the margins of the May 26-27 G8 summit in Deauville, France, missile defense will figure high on the agenda. U.S. officials hope the meeting will produce progress, perhaps in the form of agreed principles for missile defense cooperation. It remains uncertain, however, whether Moscow will be able to overcome its apparent ambivalence on the issue.

Last November in Lisbon, Medvedev agreed with his NATO counterparts to explore NATO-Russia missile defense cooperation.  That welcome development opened a prospect of changing missile defense from an irritant in East-West relations to a subject of collaboration.  Some Russian experts termed missile defense cooperation a “game-changer” capable of transforming Russian views of the Alliance and United States.  As one retired Russian general put it, real cooperation would make NATO and Russia “allies” in jointly protecting Europe against missile attack.

Since November, discussions have proceeded in NATO-Russian and U.S.-Russian channels.  They reportedly have made good progress toward understandings on practical issues, including a U.S.-Russia defense technical cooperation agreement, which would permit the exchange of classified information; the concept of a joint NATO-Russia center to exchange early warning data; and joint missile defense exercises.

Recent signals from Moscow, however, have been less encouraging.  The Russian foreign ministry reacted dourly in early May to the U.S.-Romanian agreement on a site for basing U.S. SM-3 missile interceptors in 2015.  Senior Russian officials subsequently insisted that Moscow requires “legally-binding guarantees” that U.S. and NATO missile defenses would not target Russian strategic ballistic missiles.

The Russian demand for legally-binding guarantees reflects a desire for certainty in an uncertain world.  The Bush 43 administration altered the Clinton administration’s missile defense plans and accelerated deployment of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California.  In turn, the Obama administration significantly reconfigured its predecessor’s plans for deploying missile defenses in Europe.  Russians ask what they might expect from a new administration on missile defense.

But legally-binding guarantees would require Senate ratification.  Last year’s debate on New START ratification made clear that finding 67 Senate votes for a treaty on missile defense would be a mission impossible.  What Washington can offer are political assurances:  it has been U.S. policy for some 20 years to develop a defense against a limited ballistic missile attack.  The United States is not trying to defend against the large, sophisticated Russian strategic ballistic missile force.  U.S. officials doubt the missile defense system planned over the next decade would have much capability, if any, against Russian missiles … and some nongovernmental experts question whether the system will be all that effective against even rudimentary long-range missiles. 

The question for Deauville is whether Medvedev can settle for political assurances.  If so, it would open an important avenue of cooperation.  U.S./NATO-Russian missile defense interactions, including a jointly manned early warning center, would provide a great deal of transparency about U.S. missile defense plans and capabilities—and their limitations—as well as breaking down lingering Cold War stereotypes.  Regularized interactions could ease Russian concerns, provide for enhanced missile defense of Europe, and remove the issue as a potential roadblock in the way of negotiations on further nuclear arms cuts.