The US-Russia-Ukraine Triangle

WASHINGTON, DC -- With the possible exception of Georgia-US-Russia, no US relationship in the former Soviet region is more fraught today than the US-Russia-Ukraine triangle.

At a time when Washington and Moscow have variously committed to a relationship reset, a new operating system, and a rerun of the Clinton-Yeltsin strategic partnership, it is disappointing how little substance has followed rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Central and Eastern Europe are still reeling from the US Administration’s abrupt and ill-timed reversal on missile defense deployment, and Team Obama is eager for opportunities to demonstrate its commitment to the new Europe, which received no shortage of love from the Bush Administration.

Enter the prospect of US-Ukraine cooperation on missile defense. According to Ukraine’s Ambassador to the US, the two countries have begun working discussions on sharing data from Ukrainian radar for use with a revised US-led missile defense system in Southeastern Europe.

The Ukrainians may be overreaching here, trying to manufacture a moment of decision that the US Administration prefers to avoid, however there is no doubt that missile defense cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe remains very much on the table, even after the Bush plan was scrapped last month.

And while the Obama Administration insists any radar-interceptor system is still intended primarily to defend against a rogue missile launch by Iran, Moscow has renewed its objection that missile defense based in former Warsaw Pact territory is a threat to its nuclear deterrent, an absolute red line for an ex-superpower whose conventional forces are not up to the task of defending its sprawling borders.

All of this makes perfect sense in the context of an increasingly zero sum US-Russian relationship: If the possibility of US-Ukraine missile defense cooperation reassures Kiev (and Warsaw and Prague) that the US is still fully engaged in the region, it should be no surprise that Russia is as upset over this as it was over the Bush Administration’s plans for a Polish and the Czech system–perhaps more so because some of the radars at issue are in Crimea, a Russian majority region of Ukraine where Moscow could exploit ethnic tension to empower a pro-Russian separatist movement.

Ironically, during the month between Obama’s cancellation of the original missile defense plan and now, Moscow had refused to acknowledge the importance of the US concession, latching onto the system’s technical shortcomings to dismiss it as destined for failure from the outset.

In turn, Congressional hawks have argued that Russia’s offer to cut its deployed nuclear arsenal by about a quarter is hollow, since most of those weapons are unreliable antiques.

The bigger picture: If it can’t have close ties with both Russia and the West, Ukraine’s best bet is security through NATO membership, and prosperity through EU membership. Both are threatened by Russia’s plans to build the Nord Stream pipeline, which will cut Ukraine out of the gas trade, and Moscow’s ambition to control a sphere of influence, which will, at a minimum, extend to borderlands with large Russian populations.

The Ukrainian Presidential election in January will reshuffle Kiev’s cast of players, but is unlikely to effect a permanent reorientation toward Moscow over Brussels and Washington.

For the US, opening a dialogue on potential cooperation with Ukraine signals that the missile defense reversal in September was not the beginning of the end of US engagement in the region.

Source: Partnership for a Secure America