Europe’s ballistic missile defence shield originally intended to improve continental security could actually create the opposite effect – it could provoke Russia to respond with a similar move heightening the risk of a military confrontation.

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg shake hands at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Photo: Jonathan Ernst / Pool via AP

Ahead of the upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw on July 8, one important problem on Europe’s security agenda is the status of the European ballistic missile defense shield. For now, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has taken an inflexible position on this program, viewing it as an important component of responding to potential military aggression against any NATO member.

“We are not going to agree to limitations on our [ballistic missile defense] systems because we need to have the flexibility to deal with the dynamic and evolving threat,” Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, stated earlier this year in response to Russian calls to curtail the program.

NATO has consistently stated that with the challenge posed by the proliferation of nuclear missile technology, the Alliance has a commitment to keep the European continent secure. From NATO’s perspective, this ballistic missile defense (BMD) system will reduce the risk of violence and ultimately make Europe safer.

The NATO European BMD system has been in development since 2001. The system comprises various radar sensors and intercept weapons systems, which deploy in consenting member states’ territory. So far, Turkey, Romania, Poland, the Netherlands and Spain have all agreed to host significant BMD system components and many other member states have also agreed to cooperate.

As NATO continues to develop and expand its BMD system eastwards, it increasingly threatens Russia and its interests in two ways.

First, Moscow still believes Eastern Europe resides in its sphere of influence. Rooted in a long and proud past of a far-reaching tsarist Russian empire and later a superpower U.S.S.R., Moscow sees Eastern Europe as an extension of itself. From a cultural, linguistic and historical perspective, Eastern Europe, according to Moscow’s belief, is inextricably linked with Russia and therefore resides in its sphere of influence.

From a more geopolitical perspective, the presence of an unfriendly BMD system may reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. NATO has been unclear over the exact specifications of its BMD system, meaning that it might have an unspecified capability to intercept Russian missiles. This would prove problematic for Moscow because it relies on its nuclear missile arsenal for influence in Europe.

Yet NATO consistently reassures Russia that the European BMD system has a “limited capacity” to pose a threat and, therefore, Moscow has nothing to fear. However, a Russian official remarked that if this were indeed the case, why does the U.S. reject limitations on its “limited capacity”?

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This official Russian comment reflects a common fear within Kremlin circles that the NATO BMD system is highly unpredictable and, despite NATO assurances, is intended to limit Russian power.

response, Moscow has threatened to aim its missiles at BMD installations. Last year, it warned that it would target Danish warships with weapons stationed along its borders. Russia already deploys formidable short-range 9K720 Iskander ballistic missile systems along its western borders and in Kaliningrad, its western territorial enclave located within Europe. It pledges to increase Iskander placements there.

Signs of Russian aggression and threats to increase missile deployments in Europe indicate that Moscow will not tolerate NATO BMD development and expansion eastward. Herein lies the counterintuitive nature of the NATO BMD system – as NATO increasingly expands closer to Russia’s sphere of influence, Russian military provocations will intensify accordingly.

In international relations theory, this is known as the security dilemma. These Russian counteractions cause fear among European civilian populations, increase military spending and deployments on both sides and escalate the threat of conflict. These results show a heightened security situation in Europe. NATO explains that its BMD program is intended to make Europe safer from external threats. However, because the program threatens Moscow, it will accomplish the opposite.

Pundits argue that Moscow is more bark than bit. An attack upon NATO’s military assets would constitute an act of war and neither the Kremlin nor the Russian population in interested in that.

However, this thinking remains unconvincing. Perhaps Moscow would not attack NATO BMD installations outright, but it would surely retaliate in a belligerent manner. Russia has demonstrated in Georgia, Moldova, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine a capacity to inflict a great deal of harm on populations and create frozen conflicts when its sphere of influence feels threatened. Whether Russia launches missiles at NATO installations or not, increased NATO BMD expansion will surely result in an escalation of violence and a heightened threat of conflict in Europe.

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Ultimately, the purpose of the NATO ballistic missile defense system is to protect Europe against the increasing threat of nuclear missile attack and, as a result, to make Europe safer. Yet, as NATO continues to develop its missile defense system, Moscow continues to feel more threatened. Whether or not Russia attacks NATO BMD installations outright, the truth is, Europe will become a less safe place.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.