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Missile Defense: Achilles’ heel of U.S.-Russia Relations

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader's visit to the U.S.

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader’s visit to the U.S. Photo by Robert L. Knudsen.

Remarks Announcing an Agreement on Limiting Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (May 20, 1971)

At its summit in Chicago, NATO announced that the first phase of a United States-led missile defense system in Europe is “provisionally operational.” The first phase of the controversial system is comprised of an American warship carrying interceptors in the Mediterranean and an early-warning radar system under command of a NATO base in Germany. While the United States and NATO have sought to allay Moscow’s concerns and noted that the system is not aimed at Russia, missile defense has tested relations between the countries for nearly a decade. Indeed, it was one of the central issues that President Obama sought to address when he launched a diplomatic “reset” with Russia in 2009. Russia perceives the European missile defense system as a threat to its nuclear deterrent and has called for joint control over the system, as well as a legally-binding guarantee that it is not aimed at Russia. While inviting Russia to cooperate in a joint shield, NATO officials have insisted on two separate missile defense systems and refused to sign a legally-binding agreement.

Against this backdrop, it is worth remembering that forty years ago on this day, the United States and former Soviet Union were making great strides in relations that had been strained for decades. On May 22, 1972, Richard M. Nixon was the first president to visit Moscow. During Nixon’s week-long summit in the former Soviet Union, the two countries reached several agreements on important issues, including nuclear arms control, establishing more favorable conditions for economic and commercial ties, a planned joint venture into space, and other confidence building agreements related to incidents at sea, science and technology, health and the environment. The two countries also agreed to further negotiations on the Middle East and Vietnam.

On May 26, 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), a treaty that was the culmination of nearly three years of negotiation. The treaty limited each country to 200 defensive nuclear missiles and froze the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles for the next five years. One year prior, President Nixon addressed the nation about the importance of limiting missile defense systems as a confidence building measure between the United States and Soviet Union to achieve progress on nuclear arms reductions.

The Governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, after reviewing the course of their talks on the limitation of strategic armaments, have agreed to concentrate this year on working out an agreement for the limitation of the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems (ABMs). They have also agreed that, together with concluding an agreement to limit ABMs, they will agree on certain measures with respect to the limitation of offensive strategic weapons.
The two sides are taking this course in the conviction that it will create more favorable conditions for further negotiations to limit all strategic arms. These negotiations will be actively pursued.

Where, oh where, has missile defense diplomacy gone?

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