Speculation over NATO's European missile defence system, and whether it is targeting Iran or Russia, is rife in Brussels. The Russians are certainly in no doubt about their view of developments
Europe's missile defence capability is a "disease" eating away at confidence between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - according to a senior diplomat from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If not treated in time, the disease is likely to develop "into something more serious", said Vladimir Leontiev, deputy director at the ministry's department for security and disarmament. So NATO's May declaration that its system was now capable of protecting all of southern Europe was "a serious irritator that in time can develop into a serious misfortune," Leontiev told a European parliament gathering of diplomats, military personnel and politicians.
The Russians are spitting blood because they are convinced that NATO's missile system has little or nothing to do with the alleged threat - Iran. There is "no justification for all these assets unless they are targeted against Russia," Leontiev told the seminar organised by the Security and Defence Agenda think-tank and sponsored by Raytheon, an arms manufacturer. The phased upgrading of the alliance's European missile infrastructure to the point where by 2020 it possesses 500 interceptor missiles will "break the strategic balance" between Russia and the west - forcing Moscow to take "all necessary measures to ensure Russia's security". Talk of upgrading capabilities in Alaska was cited as further evidence of Russia's "encirclement".
Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, NATO's deputy secretary general, painted a very different picture. So-called "rogue states" – including Iran and North Korea - could have missiles capable of reaching not just southern Europe, but northern Europe by the end of this decade, Vershbow said. He admitted that these nations' arsenals were likely to house "tens, not hundreds" of warheads. There was at the same time a "grave and growing threat from proliferation" the ambassador told the seminar. Around thirty nations either have missile technology, or are seeking to acquire it, he said.
Russia's objections "were not rounded on facts", Vershbow said. There will be no change in the strategic balance. "If the Russians wanted to work with us - they would see with their own eyes," he said - an invitation Leontiev labelled "mocking". Vershbow added: "We will push ahead irrespective of cooperation with Russia." There are however increasing questions as to whether NATO can afford to upgrade its missile defence capability beyond the rudimentary level established in May. Politicians in the United States say Europe's NATO members are not pulling their weight and should take on a greater cost burden. This is a big ask given the speculation that cash-strapped European nations might pull out of missile defence altogether. Those staving off bankruptcy could even do away with their air force, some commentators claim.
During the seminar's lunch break, Russian diplomats asked how they could believe NATO's promises regarding its missile defence capability given the broken promises regarding the expansion of the alliance into the former Warsaw Pact countries. Defence capabilities could be turned to offence almost immediately, given that no limits have been placed on the type or size of missile at the European system's disposal - it was claimed. The declaration by American presidential candidate Mitt Romney that Russia was the "number one geopolitical foe" of the US has understandably not done much to calm nerves in Moscow.
Bulent Meric, director general for international security affairs at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said his country's participation in the missile defence system had triggered a lot of internal criticism. Turkey hosts a critical radar station. It was necessary, Meric said, to strike a balance between "political and military control" of the system. Is Turkey after some kind of veto? Well, NATO's defence capabilities were "not developed against any specific country but against proliferation," the director general said. Romania, Poland and Spain have all contributed in some way; even if only by agreeing to allow the US to station weaponry on their soil.
Meanwhile, NATO's missile defence expansion in Asia - via Japan - is said to be ruffling feathers in China. What role will the European Union be playing in Europe's defence, you may be asking? None is the answer. Ioan Mirrcea Pascu, the vice chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, said there had been only one or two passing mentions of missile defence in parliament reports. Parliamentarians table a question a year - at most - on the subject. So much for the EU's defence ambitions.