Russian Lieutenant General Viktor Poznikhir fired off a rhetorical salvo against U.S. missile defense plans at a security forum in China, hinting that Russia could join forces with China to counter American expansion plans. Bloomberg:
Russia said it’s working with China to counter U.S. plans to expand its missile-defense network, which the two nations see as targeting their military assets. […]
“We are working together on ways to minimize possible damage to the security of our countries,” Poznikhir said. “The illusion of invulnerability and impunity under the guise of missile defense will encourage Washington to make unilateral steps in dealing with global and regional issues. This could lead to a decrease in the threshold for using nuclear weapons to preempt enemy actions.”
Russia’s concern about U.S. nuclear capabilities highlights a deepening rift between the Cold War foes as they trade accusations over the war in Syria. While NATO members have stressed that the alliance’s global missile shield will be a defense solely against potential attacks from so-called “rogue states,” particularly Iran and North Korea, Russia and China have been voicing concerns over their own security.
The deployment of U.S. missile defense systems has clearly put both China and Russia on edge. Beijing has called the deployment an “out-and-out-strategic” move that threatens China’s national security. Moscow has a long history of opposing American missile defense systems, up to and including the recent opening of a NATO missile defense system in Romania. For both Russia and China, any change in the nuclear balance—even a system like THAAD, designed to destroy North Korean missiles in their terminal phase—is perceived as a dangerous threat to the status quo.
And the idea that Beijing and Moscow might cooperate on missile defense has been kicking around this year. Kremlin media organ Sputnik floated a story in July about various experts agreeing that such a system was “unlikely, but possible”. General Poznikhir is the highest-ranking official to date to have trotted out the story, but his word does not necessarily make the likelihood of the project getting off the ground any greater.
So will all this rhetoric translate into reality? It’s true that the Chinese and Russian militaries held their first joint anti-missile exercises in May, and it was recently announced that a second round is coming before the end of next year. But implementing a permanent system is a complicated project that would require an unprecedented level of trust between the militaries of two countries that are still quite suspicious of one another. Cooperating on joint naval exercises in the South China Sea is not in the same league.