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For many, the dream of a shield that would protect a country from ballistic missiles is just that — a dream or fantasy. Any state possessing more than a rudimentary arsenal would be able to defeat a missile defense program, either by overwhelming it with the sheer number of missiles or by confusing it with decoys or other countermeasures. Indeed, some skeptics claim that such a project is unworkable in its entirety and a colossal waste of money.

Governments on the other side of that shield — those looking in — have a different view. For them, the prospect of a functioning missile defense program is troubling, as it heralds the potential nullification of weapons systems they have invested billions of dollars in and which constitute an irreducible minimum level of defense. They rely on ballistic missiles to deliver the nuclear warheads that deter enemies from blackmailing or attacking them.

It is difficult to tell how seriously Russia truly fears the U.S. missile defense program. Moscow loudly objects to Washington’s plans to deploy interceptors in Europe, a deployment that is intended to counter the threat posed by Iranian missiles.

U.S. attempts to respond to those concerns by redesigning and redeploying the system have not worked. Russian strategists dismiss U.S. assurances that Iran is the target, and worry that the system could be used to neutralize their own strategic rocket forces.

With Moscow’s military being hollowed out, its budgets and staff increasingly strained, that deterrent is causing an increasing burden on Russia’s security and defense planning.

Russian complaints have become even louder in recent weeks. Last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to withdraw from the latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by the U.S. and Russia — the New START — if NATO went ahead with its missile defense plans.

In addition, he said Russia would deploy new ballistic missiles on its border with Europe to overwhelm the system.

The issue topped the agenda of the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council that was held this month in Brussels. There were fears that Moscow would tie the issue to the maintenance of supply routes to Afghanistan, but that linkage apparently never occurred. That was smart, as Russia knows well that undermining the NATO effort in Afghanistan ultimately diminishes Russia’s own security.

Russian bluster did not shake NATO’s resolve. Calling Russian thinking a “fundamental misunderstanding” of its strategy, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen explained that “we need missile defense for our own security.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that NATO would proceed with its plans, that they would not affect Russia and that countermeasures are not needed. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey insisted that the two sides would eventually find common ground.

Russia has also reportedly demanded a written guarantee that NATO will reconsider the deployment if the Iranian threat is reduced and that the system will not be aimed at Russia. NATO has declined on both counts.

It is not clear whether Russia really believes its own protests. Russia has the engineering experience to appreciate how hard it is for a missile defense system to be 100 percent effective — and it only has to fail once to fail in a significant way — or how easy it is to build counter measures.

At the same time, protesting missile defense plans is an easy way to look tough against the U.S. and NATO. In the aftermath of the embarrassment suffered by the ruling United Russia party in recent elections, taking a swing at Washington helps improve the government’s image.

It is also in keeping with accusations leveled by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that the U.S. meddled in the elections. It is hard to make the latter claim and then accept Washington’s assurances that its missile defense plans are benign.

But election tensions are only the most recent in a series of setbacks to the attempt to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations. The two governments have differed over the military campaign in Libya, and still disagree over how to deal with the ongoing unrest in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program. This dispute is as much a symptom as a cause of the larger problem in the bilateral relationship.

The controversy is having wider effects. The nomination of Mr. Michael McFaul as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia is being held up as U.S. senators demand assurances that he will not share missile defense-related telemetry information — which could demonstrate a benign intent — with the Russians.

Equally significant is China’s reaction to this episode. Chinese strategists worry that their arsenal, even smaller than Russia’s, could become vulnerable as the U.S. deploys another missile defense program in Asia. Again, U.S. explanations that it is targeting a small, “rogue state” (North Korea) and is not configured to defeat Chinese missiles, and that such a system could be defeated by countermeasures, have had little impact. Chinese officials are reportedly demanding the same promises that Moscow wants.

Beijing has as much chance as Moscow does in getting those pledges. In other words, zero. But like Russia, China will use missile defense as a way to ratchet up tensions in the region and paint the U.S. as the problem.

If Moscow and Beijing are so worried about such plans, then they could do more to help eliminate the reasons that the U.S. and its allies need such programs. That would oblige them to take real responsibility for regional security; they both seem to prefer to exploit such threats rather than eliminate them.

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