President Vladimir Putin seems more determined than ever to pull out all the stops in an attempt to block US plans to build a missile defence radar system in the Czech Republic coupled with the placement of interceptor missiles in Poland. The argument comes down to totally opposed views of the same actions and events, with the US emphasising its need to defend against possible nuclear missile attack by Iran and other so-called rogue states while Russia sees itself as the real target of the system.
In a post-Kennebunkport escalation of the situation, Russia's first deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov, a leading contender to succeed Putin, warned that if the US pushes ahead with its plans, Russia might respond by moving missiles to its western enclave of Kaliningrad, between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea.
The situation became even more clouded by a recent decision by Russia to pull financing from two Soviet-era missile defence sites on Ukrainian territory, one in Mukachevo in far western Ukraine near its borders with Hungary and Slovakia, and another at Sevastopol, site of Russia's current Black Sea Fleet Headquarters.
Reports in the Russian press on July 11 quoted an unnamed high Russian defence official as saying that Ukraine, which technically owns the sites but which leases them to Moscow, offered the US the right to use them in 2005.
The US embassy in Kiev would not comment directly on the latest Russian reports, but gave OBG the following statement, "There is no cooperative agreement current, pending, or being negotiated between the US and Ukraine similar to the site agreements being negotiated in Poland and the Czech Republic. This includes any use of existing installations. The US cooperates on aerospace technology and missile defence with many countries. Ukraine is a leader in aerospace technology research and development. We cooperate with Ukraine on missile defence only in the area of industry-to-industry R&D relationships."
Later, Washington sources told OBG, "Yes, there were tentative discussions between the US and Ukraine on use of the two missile defence sites that Russia is vacating. We took the offer seriously, and examined the situation closely. However, so far as our goal of being able to first detect and then intercept and destroy any missile originating in Iran or one of the other rogue states in that part of the world, the Czech and Polish sites were clearly superior to those offered by Ukraine. The same could be said for the Azerbaijan site offered by Russia."
Despite Russia's press on stopping the US plans in the Czech Republic and Poland, Washington military analysts believe that the US is determined to continue with its current plans.
This has lead the Kremlin and the defence ministry to sharpen its fire on the Czech Republic and Poland, with a top Russian defence ministry official being quoted as saying on July 19 that countries that host missile defence systems are not improving their own security, but are putting themselves and their neighbours at risk. The source told the press that the expansion of the US missile defence system would cause serious environmental problems in several parts of the world, as the interception of an intercontinental ballistic missile creates a vast zone of destruction.
The ministry source said, "Should a US anti-missile intercept a ballistic or other type of missile in Europe, substantial tracts of land would be affected in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and a number of other states. Radioactive elements will be dispersed across these countries' territories."
However, many observers believe the current battle over the missile defense system really has at its heart the more basic issue of Russia's strong opposition to what it sees as the encroachment of NATO on a wide range of fronts. The NATO Sea Breeze 2007 sea and land exercises just completed in the Black Sea and at Ukraine's Shirokyi Lan Training Range are an example.
Thirteen countries took part in the NATO exercises, of which seven - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine - were either a part of or closely allied with the old Soviet Union.
Russian policy makers are not only disappointed that their attempts at better relations with NATO have no paid greater dividends, they are determined to make every move possible to stop NATO's eastward movement.
On July 14, Putin signed a decree suspending Russia's participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). With the dispute over deployment of the U.S. anti-missile system in Czech Republic and Poland appearing no nearer settlement, on July 23 Putin submitted a draft law on the suspension to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, clearly signaling that his decree was not a bluff.
Putin and Ivanov are talking tough and will no doubt follow up tough talk with strong actions. However, one should not forget that both Russia and the United States have presidential elections upcoming, meaning that a certain amount of political theater may have to play itself out, at least until both election results are final - and that means November, 2008. Until then, any serious talks are highly unlikely.
Ukraine's reinvigorated cooperation with NATO, coupled with its alleged offer of Russian missile defense sites to the United States, seems certain to complicate already uneasy relations between the two largest members of the former Soviet Union. The political weather forecast between Kyiv and Moscow seems cloudy with occasional stormy periods for the foreseeable future.