Ukraine Must Not Side with NATO on Missile Defense

March 3, 2011
A major row appears to be shaping up between Moscow and NATO (read: Washington) over the shape of a new continent-wide missile defense system. This is a quarrel in which Kiev cannot afford to side with NATO.
James George Jatras

To date the premier achievement of the presidential administration of Viktor Yanukovich has been Kiev’s adoption of a non-aligned security status. By rejecting the defeated “Orange” regime’s efforts to drag Ukraine into the anti-Russian NATO alliance over the objections of most Ukrainians – and thereby transforming Ukraine into Washington’s club to beat Russia – President Yanukovich laid down an essential condition for Ukraine to be a bridge between East and West, not a potential battleground.

To be sure, later actions by members of his administration have not consistently followed up on President Yanukovich’s landmark accomplishment in taking Ukraine’s NATO accession permanently off the table. The American Institute in Ukraine has expressed concern about certain initiatives that appear to flirt with keeping the “western option” open, giving the impression – unfounded, one hopes – in certain circles that Kiev may resume its interrupted “Euro-Atlantic” course at some unspecified future time. These include, for example, aspects of Ukraine’s energy policy under Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko, notably reversal of the Odessa-Brody pipeline back to its “original” Washington-dictated direction as a conduit for Caucasian oil. Kiev has declined to withdraw from the absurd but dangerous GUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova) grouping or to become an observer (but not member) in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to balance its participation in NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” and in NATO’s military programs and missions. AIU has lodged similar concerns over Kiev’s inaction in the face of the influence of Berlin, Warsaw, and Stockholm (with backing of Washington and Brussels) to plant a “pro-Europe” coalition in Kishinev. In short, while President Yanukovich has laid down a sound overall path for Ukraine’s security orientation, secondary decisions on specific policy initiatives appear inconsistent with that orientation or even contrary to it.

It is with that background that AIU suggests that Kiev needs to take a hard look at its next step in what may turn out to be a renewed confrontation between Washington and Moscow over the question of missile defense. Paradoxically, in light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s famous “reset” of relations with Russia, missile defense had looked to become a point of signal cooperation between Russia and the American-led NATO alliance. To the chagrin of anti-Moscow hardliners in the U.S., in September 2009 President Obama cancelled the preceding George W. Bush administration’s planned deployment of the components of an ostensibly defensive system in Poland and Czechia, to which Moscow threatened to respond with offensive weapons targeted at both prospective host countries. Then, at the November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, the alliance invited Russia to develop a joint system for defense against potential threats from “rogue states,” an offer to which Russia gave a qualified affirmative response though no firm commitment. But to all appearances, a potential point of confrontation seemed ready to emerge as an area of cooperation between NATO and Russia, with a “bloc-centered” view of European security finally relegated to the museum of the Cold War, where it belongs.

Washington’s Rationales and Moscow’s Suspicions

Hopes for cooperation soon ran into difficulties. In recent weeks the issue has come down to the predictable but unavoidable question of who controls the system. The Russians insist that if a “joint” NATO-Russia system is truly cooperative, there must be genuine joint control. To NATO, this means not only that Moscow would have an equal say in determining whence threats originate (which points directly to disagreements over Iran’s capabilities and intentions) but whether Moscow would exercise what amounts to a veto over the system’s deployment and (should the need arise) engagement.

No crystal ball is needed to see that NATO will never agree to such an arrangement. NATO’s preference has been for separate but “coordinated” systems, in which NATO would protect its members’ territory, and Moscow, with whatever countries choosing to work with it on a separate system, would protect theirs’. The superficial logic in this concept is devastated by the obvious fact that “cooperation” on this principle would allow NATO to go ahead and build the system it wanted to in the first place, with only NATO’s word that it was directed south against, presumably, Iran, and not really east against Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

In an effort to break the deadlock, Moscow proposed a “sectoral” concept, whereby the NATO and Russian sides would have defined geographic and technical sectors, which in part would give Moscow responsibility for intercepting missiles headed over Russia towards Europe and assign NATO responsibility for missiles headed across its territory towards Russia. Russia’s clear intention is that NATO’s interceptors not be pointed towards Russia, notably ship-based interceptors in the Arctic where, at least in theory, they could shoot down Russian ICBMs headed towards the United States. Of course, to NATO this would mean ceding a “button” for defense of NATO territory to Russian commanders, a “non-starter” in Washington: Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, the top U.S. arms control negotiator, states that President Obama has decided that “NATO will protect NATO, and that’s the bottom line as far as we’re concerned.”

The shadow lurking behind both sides of the looming impasse is Moscow’s almost complete lack of trust as to NATO’s intentions on matters extending well beyond missile defense – a suspicion not confined to Russians but shared by many Americans, including notable conservatives. The fact is, viewed though the history of American post-Cold War behavior, including expansion of NATO, the 1999 Kosovo war, support for “color revolutions” in the former USSR, and finally the attack launched on South Ossetia in 2008 by America’s favorite client in the Caucasus, Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow has been understandably skeptical of NATO assurances that its planned missile system is not really directed against Russia. As colorfully summed up by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, recently named by President Dmitry Medvedev as Moscow’s point man on missile defense as well, “The NATO gamekeepers invite the Russian bear to go hunting rabbits together. The bear doesn’t understand: why do they have bear-hunting rifles?” Given NATO’s past behavior, the Russians have to wonder: why are they so insistent on setting up a system to defend against Iranian weapons that don’t exist and that Washington pledges will never be allowed to exist, in order to defend European countries whose citizens are not asking to be defended, all the while swearing that Americans will remain vulnerable to Russian missiles?

While it’s perhaps too soon to say the era of good feeling based on the Obama reset already is coming to a close, there can be no mistake that a potential deal-breaker threatens if a compromise of the control issue can’t be found, and if NATO renews its push to deploy. Not only can we expect Moscow to renew its threats to target missiles on NATO countries hosting components, Russia has announced its willingness to sacrifice what to date has been the crown jewel of its bilateral relationship with the U.S.: the newly ratified START agreement to limit American and Russian strategic weapons, approval of which by the U.S. Senate in December 2010 was seen as a triumph for President Obama over Republican opponents.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov has suggested that in the event of an inability to find compromise on missile defense, Russia would have to review not only the continued “sense” of abiding by START but to take other, unspecified measures of a “military technical” nature. “Missile defense in Europe can only be created with Russia, or directed against Russia,” according to Ambassador Rogozin, who added: “There is no third option.”

Ukraine’s Choice

It is in this context that Kiev provisionally has signaled a willingness to take part in NATO’s missile defense program. Following a meeting with Foreign Minister Gryshchenko, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced late last month: “We agreed to begin expert consultations on this issue of how Ukraine can participate in the missile defense system” – evidently meaning NATO’s system, not Russia’s. It is noteworthy that the Rasmussen announcement after his meeting with Minister Gryshchenko parallels the comments of former Defense Minister Anatoly Grytsenko (“Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense”), currently chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security and Defense, who told reporters after a meeting with Mr. Rasmussen: “We [i.e., Ukraine and NATO] are interested in participating in the building of a joint missile defense system and developing our technologies and creating new jobs through this. In my view, we have more reasons for direct cooperation [with NATO] than many of the two scores of Euro-Atlantic partners.” Mr. Grytsenko – erstwhile “Orange” point-man for Ukraine’s “Euro-Atlantic” integration and NATO accession – added that Ukraine was near to making a “strategic choice” on armaments, which he thought should be more oriented toward developing defense industry cooperation with the NATO countries and transfering the Ukrainian armed forces to a new system of armaments “oriented not only toward the Russian Federation.”

At this juncture, it is hard to tell if the signals coming from Kiev are the result of drift or of a deliberate effort to take a step in the western direction. But in the event that missile defense develops into a renewed confrontation between NATO and Russia – and hopefully it will not – it is not in Ukraine’s interest to fall back into its “Orange” role as a western salient against Russia. Accordingly, Kiev needs to make clear that any participation in missile defense can only be in a truly balanced, joint system agreed to by both NATO and Russia – and that Ukraine will not participate in a NATO-only system that excludes Russia.

To accomplish that, and to help prevent a renewal of East-West confrontation that can only have negative consequences for Ukraine, all members of the Yanukovich administration, notably Foreign Minister Gryshchenko, should make it a top priority to work closely with their Russian counterparts to turn missile defense into an area of NATO-Russia cooperation in the security sphere, not a new face-off. If such efforts fail, Kiev must make it clear to NATO it will not participate. Ukraine cannot afford any appearance that it is seeking participation in NATO's missile defense directed against Russia, as some observers suspect is the ulterior purpose behind Washington’s seeming obsession with a dubious initiative that refuses to go away. To do so would gravely undermine President Yanukovich’s top success thus far.