Ukraine Should Not Be Dragged Into Shield Debate
Recently, after the Ukrainian crisis began there was much debate on the required security measures to reassure the NATO's Eastern European members. Some lawmakers have called for a speeding up of the implementation of the NATO missile shield project. To link missile defense with Ukraine would be a self-defeating move however. The shield is not designed to stop Russia's arsenal and would allow Moscow a free hand to tear up other arms control agreements.
US Republican Senators recently presented "The Russian Aggression Prevention Act" which carries provisions requesting that implementing the third stage of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) be sped up by two years. This particular stage of the EPAA includes the placement of the Aegis antimissile system, a radar and interceptor system, in Poland by 2018. The legislation mentioned above is intended to accelerate the deployment of these systems, so they are installed in Polish territory by the final months of 2016. When preparing this kind of retaliatory legislation we should be careful not to undermine our intended purpose of stabilizing Eastern Europe and NATO-Russia links. For one thing, it risks building unfounded expectations amongst NATO's Eastern European members. According to an audit report from the US Government Accountability Office the EPAA's phase 3 may be postponed until 2020 "or later". It also calls the Pentagon's assessment acquisition risks "optimistic".
We must also consider that when the Obama administration adopted a new approach for the missile shield, the aim was to focus on the threats of the ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Creating a direct nexus between the Ukrainian crisis and the missile shield may allow Russia to substantiate its accusations that EPAA is ultimately directed towards Moscow's strategic arsenal and not any Middle Eastern country's ballistic missiles. Moreover, it may provide the justification for Moscow to further develop its nuclear arsenal without political restrictions. Recently, Russia announced an ICBM launch to test an advanced warhead that may, according to defense analysts, have the sole purpose of overcoming missile defense systems. Russia also carried out an ICBM flight test and a nuclear forces exercise.
The planned NATO antimissile system (purposely) does little to protect against the Russian strategic arsenal. The number of interceptors planned for deployment in Europe is tremendously inferior to the number of ballistic missiles and warheads that Russia currently holds, allowing Moscow to saturate and overcome the NATO antimissile defense systems. However, if it is linked to the events in Ukraine, the issue could still allow the Russian leadership to evade past arms control commitments and to execute strategic decisions that could ultimately challenge the security of NATO allies. For example, Russia could use the association of NATO's antimissile shield with the crisis in Ukraine to place Iskander nuclear-capable missiles in the Kaliningrad region, as it has threatened to do in the past. Consequences could also come at the arms control level, as the "The Russian Aggression Prevention Act" would also enable the US to suspend any developments on nuclear weapons reductions while Russia continues a threatening posture against Ukraine. At a moment when there are serious questions surrounding Russia's enforcement of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, further excuses should not be given to Moscow's political elites to avoid the implementation of the New START's Treaty legally binding dispositions.
So far, NATO and the Obama administration have skillfully managed to keep the Russian nuclear issue separate from the Ukrainian crisis. NATO has suspended civil and military cooperation with Russia and deployed additional conventional forces in Eastern European countries, but at the same time it has kept the NATO-Russia dialogue channel open. On a similar note, the Obama Administration has strived to maintain nuclear security and arms control cooperation with Russia, avoiding a regional crisis transforming into an international nuclear arms race. Maintaining the nuclear status quo amid the Ukrainian crisis needs measures that continue cooperation between the US and Russia and allow the instability in Ukraine to settle. Playing games with NATO's missile shield will only have the reverse effect.
Francisco Galamas is an international security and nonproliferation analyst, a member of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group, part of the United States Atlantic Council and of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.